Monday, 2 December 2013

Optical Yoga (and what the eye evolved to see)

"...we'll take the launch down to the Thames Barrier. You've never seen it after dark."
"I havent seen it at all. Won't it be cold?"
"Not particularly. Wear something warm. I'll bring a thermos of soup and the wine. It really is worth seeing, Declan, those great hoods rising out of the dark river towering over you. Do come. We could put in at Greenwich for a pub meal."

(P.D. James - Original Sin)

Runner's can be inclined to dithering.  Once they are out of the house, that's different.  But when I have my long run to do, boy!, I can dither.  I need to eat at the right time.  I need to drink the right amount (too little and I won't last the 12 miles, too much and I'll be stopping to ...). Shall I take music?  What kind? Which earphones? What will I wear? How will I keep my iPod dry if it rains? (ans. cling film)  Will I need my Oyster Card? What about a £20 note? Which shoes?  I am going to stop there, as I could go on for several hundred more words.  Anyway, the last question that I always ask is: 'Oh, where am I going to go?'  12 miles (as it was in this case) is a lot of pavement to eat up, and if you're going out for a couple of hours, you may as well go somewhere nice.  In South-East London we are not spoiled for nice open spaces.

I always end up orbiting Blackheath in some way.  So after there, I wandered towards Greenwich, and with several miles still to use, headed for the Thames Path.  When I hit the path on the South side of the river, I usually go east because it's quieter, and because of the Thames Barrier. There is something about it that I love.  It is beautiful.  It doesn't look like a flood barrier at all, more like an oversized Christmas decoration left to float. Once you turn south on the Greenwich peninsula it comes into view in the distance and every shuffling step brings you closer and closer, and it just gets bigger and bigger.

I think the other reason that I like the Thames Path is the constant motion in one's eyeline.  Years ago, when LCD computer screens first began shrinking (and so expanding the real-estate of our desks), there was the problem of the dead-pixel. LCDs use the light-modulating properties of liquid crystals that behave in certain ways when tiny amounts of electricity are run through them. In the earlier days of LCD displays, it was common to have a couple of dead or stuck pixels on your screen.  If you were lucky, you could gently massage them back to life - a carefully-applied fingernail, a little gentle rub, and a pixel stuck in the 'off' position might come back to life.

When I'm running, I feel like this is what is happening to my retinas.  In the urban landscape, almost everything is static; the pixels are stuck in the 'grey' position. Features of the landscape are more difficult to notice because they don't move. This is what is so amazing for me about the Thames Path, on one side, there are cranes, fences, the giraffe-heads of CCTV cameras peering from out of their pens, the Dome, the Barrier.  Everything is statue still.

And on the other side, is the broad Thames with its million wavelets.  There is something restful about seeing this movement, like my eyes are getting a workout, a long and deep yogic stretch that they can't get in the town.  And so it seems that movement is the essence of vision.  We have a highly adapted flicker fusion frequency of about '60'.  This means that we can see at approximately '60 frames per second'.  Urban landscapes are discordant with our wellbeing in ways that we don't yet understand, but it seems to make some sense to me that my eyes feel restored, somehow, by this omnimovement of the Thames.  It is as close as they can get to experiencing the dynamism and fluidity of the paleolithic landscapes of the past.  Those are the landscapes, after all, the eye evolved to see.

(Many studies have linked the modern pandemic of myopia with too much time spent indoors looking at books or screens.  See, Nina Jacobsen, Hanne Jensen, Ernst Goldschmidt, ‘Does the Level of Physical Activity in University Students Influence Development and Progression of Myopia?—A 2-Year Prospective Cohort Study’, Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science, April 2008, 49:4, pp. 1322-7.)

Monday, 18 November 2013

Sunday Worship

It used to be a day of worship, but in an increasingly secular society we still seem to go in search of out-of-body experiences on a Sunday

Blackheath village is a basin. It sinks down into its centre; and because that is where life is busiest, a runner can't take advantage of the slope.  Then they have to climb all the way out again like a spider out of a bath.  Today, I was still on the village's outskirts when I saw a Sunday worshipper (doing her long run) on her descent after clambering the village's walls.  In a moment, believing herself unseen, she threw her arms out like wings, closed her eyes, her head dropped back to look up at the sun, and she was gone; falling into a world of her own.  Her runner's high had struck.  The brain's endocannabinoid system had activated and anandamide flooded her system.  The effect is euphoric.  her heart will have slowed as her blood vessels dilate.  Pains and niggles will disappear as the analgesic effect of anandamide kicked in.  It was wonderful to see it happening to someone else.

Sunday is the day that most people do their long-run. It is slower, longer, and probably the most looked-forward-to date in the runners' diary.  Like being pregnant, or growing a beard (trust me on this), once it's something you've done you can see it everywhere.

It was several months ago, end of March 2014.  I know the date because of the conversation I was having with a friend.  We were driving through some of London's outer suburbs (Beckenham / Bromley), and on one of the longer straighter roads were some runners.  I said to my mate H.
   'They're training for the marathon; they're doing they're long run.'
   'How can you possibly know that? You can't know that?'
He's right; I couldn't.  But it was THAT day, the one where you have to do that last 18-22 miler before the three week taper for race day.  It wasn't just that, though.  There was something about the way that they were running.  Their gait was rhythmic and minimalist - their clothes were fit for the rainy day. They were upright, economic, efficient.  They didn't shuffle.  Their was nothing about them that suggested 'beginner' or 'short run'. Of course, Sunday is the day that is most-free in people's schedules, but I wonder if there isn't some kind of social or atavistic throwback to the way we lived a thousand or so years ago.  The rhythm of life was one in which (in this example, going to church) was time away from work, not leisure, but rest. And, for anyone that has experienced a runner's high, they will tell you that it is as close to a religious experience as they can imagine.  Is running, then, a kind of worship, an expression of gratitude, to and for... something?  Being, perhaps.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Breaking the rules.

I've hit on a very expensive, but great fun, way to run.

I have had a pretty tiring week that has bled into Saturday morning, so I was looking forward to today's run.  I didn't have far to go to get my weekly miles, but found myself dithering when it was time to leave the house.  I usually don't really have to think about where I'm going, but just couldn't make a decision.  So I broke one of my rules. I've only got two.

There are loads of 'rules' about running. Doing it off and on for years, I've learnt that most don't seem to have a great deal of depth to them.  I'm not going to go through them systematically - thereby revealing my ignorance and stupidity - instead, I'll just say what my two rules are.

1. Don't use runs instrumentally.
That means run because you like running.  Doing it for a reason is the fastest route to falling out of love with it.  If you're trying to lose weight, or something like that, there is a good chance that you will be disappointed.

2. Go fast OR far - never do both on the same run.
This one is simple, if you want to run faster than normal, don't do it on the same day that you are doing your longer run.

Anyway, I broke both today.  Like I was on an adventure in a preschooler's primer - I ran to the shops, all the way to Covent Garden. I went faster than I have done for weeks (probably because I wasn't running while at work - I have been sneaking in Crab & Winkle Way adventures into my lunch hours.) Today, I finished my 8 miles at the Paul Smith Shop and my runner's high got the better of me. I emerged 10 minutes later swinging bags of shopping. Train home - all done.

An expensive way to run, but what a brilliant day.

This is the run.

What running rules do you like breaking?

The Crab and Winkle Way - the path is lined with brambles, so as long as you don't mind a few cobwebs, you can feast on blackberries.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Foraging (for blackberries, the past, and Mistry)

The house loaded with books (golf course on the left).
   Like God is riffling a deck of shuffled cards, the seasons keep changing.  I started in winter, dodged the wet and wind of autumn, and now it's summer again.  I'm carrying a fat hardback that I've picked up en route.
   I checked out the map before I left and decided to head out east, run for a mile and then follow an arc that took me from three to six on the clockface, to make my way back north, and home.
   I start off in a hamlet called Hampton Fields.  I feel tired, but not in a sleepy way; more like the rickettiness associated with being in your mid-forties. and upping your mileage.  As always, the shadows and stiffnesses vanish as soon as I start shuffling to the ryhthm that my feet know so well. I have made the rare decision to underdress for the weather - I always wear too much when there's a little bite in the air,  but I have come out in only a thin shirt. (and shorts, etc.)
   Autumm is snapping at the heels of summer.  Pheasants cross my path in a lane and defecate with fear as they flutter away into the air.  Then there's a shower.  As I look across a shorn crop of hay, I can see that the rain's deep - twinkling in the sun for miles.  I'm already warm, so bring it.
   Up ahead is a place I saw on the map called the Devil's Graveyard.  I imagine all manner of Romantic iconography: a ruined abbey, rugged landscape; but all I can see is a house with a trim hedge and a dancing golden retriever who wants to get out and say 'hello'. In the distance a church spire rises from a copse like the mast of a ship amongst the waves.
   I am relying on the sun for my direction, so inevitably I lose my way when I come to an unclear junction and take the most-defined route.  Down a long pathway there are a handful of poppies and elder.  The fields are bleach clean. For the next generation, this will be 'normal'.  This is what nature will look like.  But ever since intensive agriculture began, the diversity of wildflowers and colour seen in the fields has diminished.  To this. Eight wispy poppies, huddled together, on a square mile of land.  It is a kind of generational amnesia where every thirty years, the baseline for what is called 'nature' has to retreat farther and farther.
   After a mile, I arrive at a farm, convinced I have gone wrong.  Two daschunds eye across from across the paddock.  Their tails curl up, their hackles rise and they start sprinting towards me yapping.  Their owner can't see or hear any of this as she is engrossed with what looks like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up horseshit.  The sausage dogs' confindence wains and they slow as they approach me - I'm not wearing socks, so I really don't fancy a nip on the ankle. The woman finally sees me and runs over to tell me that I have indeed gone wrong, and she sets me back on the path (the way I came, past the poppies).

   The rain stops. I go up and down vale - through gulleys, over hillocks.  When I finally see a village I recognise, without audience, I raise my arms like I'm crossing a finish line (endorphins are a funny thing). Then, as I pass an old red phone box, I see that it has been stripped of its ontological identity (this is 'philosopher' for: 'it has no phone'); it is instead lined with bookshelves.  The group of us that have rented the house in which we are staying have done little else but buy books.  We've acquired at least thirty between us since our holiday began.  And now, I see a hardback of Rohinton Mistry's 'Family Matters' - a book I bought in paperback just two days ago, and so I am now returning from a run with another big, fat, weighty, book.
   The finish is a steep climb which I gamely attack.  A man sees me carrying the tome and yells 'bravo!' from his garden. I smile, but as soon as I'm out of sight I splutter to a stop - it's too much of a climb. On one side of me is a golf course - another kind of bleached landscape (see top photo); on the other, there are nettles, celandines, clematis, all kinds of grasses, the blackberries are out, too - so I stop and grab at some, they are round and sweet - except one.  And then I notice that diversity isn't in the fields anymore; its last line of defence, it seems, is the roadside.

The last place for life to crowd into the frame.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Tractor and the Caterpillar - The Dymock Poets and the Cotswolds

I'm five miles in and I have a fly up my nose. My legs are tired from wobbling on the tussocky grass; baby-fists of chalk protrude from the path, punching me through my shoes.
It is a much better run than it sounds. The fly doesn't make it.
All year I have found it hard to get back into a running rhythm and today is the first six-miler in many months. Because I've been easing my way back to regular running, I've been using Saucony Kinvaras - they're light, with some cushioning (a little too much for me to 'love' them), but at least they're flexible - I like a shoe that gives to my foot, not bars its way. But they're a London shoe; a roadrunner. They're not built for Cotswold stone.  Now that I'm in the land of the Dymock poets, or Laurie Lee if you prefer, neither they nor I am cut out for this hilly and changeable terrain.
In only my first mile, the ground gives way so steeply that I have to walk the single-track road. I start to run again and the tarmac gives way to a footpath that leads into the tiny
hamlet of Nag's Head - it has a plaque on the wall listing the eighteen men that died in the First World War - about a quarter of its inhabitants. One was only seventeen.
Down the side of a cottage, three men are working and they smile at me as I dance down a pathway littered with clumps of chalk. Then I realise why they were smiling: the pathway (after a few metres) comes to an end in a steep hillock like a 20 metre tide of grass. The psychology of the runner will not let me retrace my steps so early in the game, so I start fighting through 'the nature' to find the pathway. The wisps of grass are so tall they brush against my face, then the nettles attack.  All around my legs up to hips start tingling with stings (that go on to last for days). I angle my way up the hill only to discover there is a clear and short path that I somehow missed. The next couple of miles are all under the dappled luminosity of beeches. And I'm STILL climbing. To my left is a shorn meadow, golden, with great drums of gathered hay. There is something colour-wheel perfect about these three shades, gold, green and blue, that feels restorative, like an easy yoga-stretch for the eye. 
These are the landscapes that inspired the Dymock poets, a loose collection of lads who, for one reason or another, found their way out of London to their quiet hideaway. Although Edward Thomas was closely connected with them, he wasn't yet writing poetry when he stayed here with Robert Frost, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Wilfrid Gibson. The Dymockers set themselves against the modernist turn that began to take place in the city.
Lascelles Abercrombie in later life
When Ezra Pound was busy recruiting Hilda Doolittle and Richard Aldington to his Imagist collective (espousing the importance of directness, precision, and spare musicality that ignored the metronome), the Georgians were rustic and simple, employing the language of the everyday, imitating the natural cadences of speech (we runners know all about cadence). It's hard not to get behind an aesthetic whose founding principle is so democratic. Like pages tossed into a fire, many of the Dymock poets were consumed in the First World War. Edward Thomas, a career spent in prose, did not live to see his first collection of poems in print.
The beech cover breaks and I'm in a gulley that has been recently cut. Stubs of weeds snap and poke at me under foot; and the nettles, sensing their chance for dominance are creeping back into the empty space left by the cutter. After another mile I am back on single-track tarmac. It looks like a painting. The road, lined with hedges, runs straight to the horizon, then gold and green fields appear either side.  A tractor ambles over the hill and I have to flatten myself into the side of the road as it thunders past. And it is only then that I see a caterpillar, in the middle of the road, perfectly perpendicular, in full sprint to the other side. It oxbows and stretches in a line like it has done this journey tens of times. I laugh at the preposterous dynamic of perspective.
Signs of life are ahead. I reach a junction which signposts one way for Bath; the other, Cirencester.  Do I want times-old Roman, or times new Roman? After a few yards, I decide neither. There is no footpath and the thunderous traffic is so fast and heavy that the distraction of a dinging text in a lorry-driver's cab would be enough to kill me. I am running for nothing, so I turn back onto the footpath and retrace my steps.
After Thomas's death, Harold Monro's collections of Georgian Poetry continued until that hot year of modernism, 1922; the year that saw the publication of Ulysses, Jacob's Room, and The Waste Land. Even though Georgian Poetry sold more than 70,000 copies, its moment had passed. How could a verse form, so sense-making, so clear in its expression, survive the chaotic lunacy of a war that slaughtered so many? 

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The 48 reasons that I'm apparently 'not' a runner.

So here are Running Warehouse's '50 Signs you are a runner'.

While the list didn't infuriate me, I was surprised to find that of the 50, I scored a total of about '2'.  I've not done this badly in a test since Mrs Oswald, our history teacher, decided one day to walk around the class as we took our mini exams so we couldn't keep the books open on our laps.

  • You “accidentally” run on your rest day. 
  • Nope
  • You never seem to quite catch up on your laundry pile of running clothes.
  • Nope
  • You have some pretty serious sunglasses tanlines.
  • nope
  • You have at least one photo of you dripping with sweat on your refrigerator.
  • Nope - that's disgusting
  • You’ve been chased by a dog and lived to tell the tale.
  • I must've missed this particular pleasure
  • You’ve had someone scream “run, Forrest, run” at you from a passing car.
  • nope - though some kids did shout 'nice shoes', when I was barefooting in Lewisham, once
  • You run so early that the coffee shops aren’t even open.
  • never
  • You judge songs you hear by how motivating they’d be on the run.
  • real runners don't need music to entertain them.
  • You’re kind of addicted to your Garmin.
  • that's weird
  • You dream about running.
  • never have - although I did once dream about having bananas for feet
  • You write nastygrams when the manufacturer inevitably changes your favorite shoe.
  • sad
  • You daydream about the trails while at work.
  • I do sometimes look out of the car window in a lecherous manner and think 'phwoar, I'd love to run up there.'
  • You’ve got one of those race distance bumper stickers on your car.
  • no - I have a sticker that says I've been to Lundy - does that count?
  • You find yourself gravitating toward hills, just for the challenge.
  • no - the route is the route
  • You spend an inordinate percentage of your monthly income on running gear.
  • no - my mortgage
  • You get a thrill from plotting your course on MapMyRun.
  • no - I do it on the run
  • You consider a port-a-potty a luxury.
  • happy to say I don't know what that is
  • Your cupboards are always well-stocked with pasta, quinoa and oatmeal.
  • not for that reason
  • Your buddy wants to set you up on a blind date and your first question is, ‘do they run?’
  • no - are we even talking about the same sport?
  • You start asking for running gear and gift cards (to the ‘House, of course) as presents.
  • no!  book tokens, maybe.
  • You get up before the birds to fit in a double day workout.
  • NEVER!!!
  • It’s too damn hot. You go for a run anyway.
  • hmmm... probably
  • It’s too damn cold. You go for a run anyway.
  • perhaps
  • You’re a woman who has far more sports bras than regular bras.
  • I have exactly the same number of sports bras and normal bras
  • You know how far you ran without using a map or GPS watch.
  • YES!!!!  At last!!!! Yes!!!!! I do!!!
  • You don’t think a blackened toenail is all that big a deal.
  • I do, and they're gross
  • You found a coworker who runs and you nag them regularly about lunch runs.
  • Why would you want to run with someone else?
  • Your next vacation spot was chosen for its great trails.
  • no, partner do me in.
  • You’ll spend $100 (or more) to race on roads you could run for free.
  • don't race
  • Your friends have pool noodles. You have a foam roller.
  • I don't know what pool noodles are, but I do have a foam roller
  • You’ve had so much sweat in your eyes, you could barely see.
  • my thick Irish eyebrows help
  • The first race you finished was one of the best experiences of your life.
  • London marathon 2012 - it was
  • The most recent race you finished was one of the best experiences of your life.
  • Only done that one race
  • You look forward to a rainy day so you can bliss out on your run.
  • not really
  • You hit the golf course frequently, but don’t golf.
  • no - golf courses are not pretty places.
  • You compare your latest injuries with other runners.
  • no - too depressing
  • “A good day at work” means you got a run in over lunch.
  • no, it doesn't
  • You use the word “only” in front of a mile distance you used to think was far.
  • respect the mileage
  • You don’t run for two days and start to go stir-crazy.
  • get real
  • You have an opinion about running on concrete vs. pavement.
  • I prefer concrete
  • You’ve mastered the subtle nod/wave when you pass other runners.
  • Londoners don't do this
  • You have a whole stash of ice bags in your freezer.
  • no - gin and vodka bottles take up all the space
  • You find yourself gravitating toward running metaphors.
  • It is best to avoid running metaphors in the long run
  • You have enough race t-shirts to insulate a small cabin.
  • no, just one
  • Icy Hot is your version of perfume/cologne.
  • ???
  • You’re frequently recruiting friends who don’t run to try and get them hooked.
  • I'm not a converter
  • You have fond memories of bygone shoes.
  • I think I probably do
  • Your running gear is the first thing you pack for any trip.
  • no, asthma inhalers
  • You don’t even remember what you did with your free time before you started running.
  • oh yes I do.
  • You’ll never give it up until you’re broken.
  • that sounds horrid.

Who are the people that write these things, that try to take ownership of an activity that's meant for all of us?

Friday, 14 June 2013

My Uncle Jim - barefoot Marathon-champion.

No. 9 - Jim Hogan.

I was skinning in Lewisham today.  And, as I crept along some of the fiercest of surfaces for barefooters (tarmac with protruding gravel), I wondered how my uncle ever coped with this.  My uncle is Jim Cregan, though he ran under the name of Hogan.
My uncle was born in rural Limerick in 1933 and when he was a boy he discovered both a passion and a talent for running.  So naturally, his mama took him off to the local Niketown, bought some massive spongy trainers for him to run in, he slipped them on, and the rest is sporting history.  No, there wasn’t a whole host cash sloshing about in Southern Ireland before the war.  He had no shoes, so he learned to run barefoot. 
I’ve recently been reading some of the debates about barefoot running that I try to avoid, and the reason that I try to avoid them is that I don’t really think that there is much to debate with people who think that ‘better’ running is ‘faster’ running, because I think that better running is the running that makes you feel good; the running that doesn’t hurt or injure you, and if that means running barefoot, then that’s what you should do. 
In one of these debates, about a ridiculous experiment to decide whether forefoot or rearfoot running was best (why does this matter?) one of the trollers said something along the lines of ‘If you can just show me the marathon runner that won barefoot, maybe I’d be prepared to listen.’  And I remembered Uncle Jim.
Jim Hogan was not a barefoot exponent.  He mostly ran barefoot, but his trainers did manage to wrestle him into trainers.  But, he just did not like the fact that he couldn’t feel the track anymore when he ran in them.
My uncle, managed to win marathons barefoot. He competed in two Olympics. He held the world record for the 40K.  In 1966, he won the European Championships, running it barefoot, in just 2.20.
He is not so well now, but is celebrating his eightieth birthday.  He gave up running only a couple of years ago.  
What a hero!
God bless you, Jim - and Happy Birthday.

You can buy his book here.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Knot! (I thought I had a running injury, but it was an admin one).

At first it was a dull pain in my calf.  As the run continued, the pain became sharper. After another half mile I began to alter my gait to ease the pain. Then I realise, I am injured.

When I get home I find that my soleus (the smaller calf muscle that emerges from the achilles tendon)  has gone into spasm and has a lateral anterior knot.  I attack the bulge with my thumbs but it won’t soften.  The knot is tangled and tied tight. It's painful and it is a very unusual place to get one.

The acid-bitter frustration of injury is familiar territory to every runner. It is exacerbated by the fact that this time I was being careful and taking it easy.  It is unfair, somehow.  I have been drowning in exam papers.  I have been trapped inside marking 107 scripts (214 essays) and keeping up with emails and the kind of report writing that is the mainstay of so many peoples’ jobs.  I need this time out.  I need to be able to escape from this snowy mogul of paperwork.  I need air. Desperately. 

The next day, I continue kneading at the knot.  It's stubborn, so I decide to skip my run and rest, instead - more work.  Two more days go by (of more work), and even though it still hurts, it is softer.  I head out for another run; slowly, carefully.  The muscle is not happy but I manage the run OK. 

On the following day, a Sunday, frustrated with my coralled existence (of having to perform a pointless administrative task of uploading a reading list, item by item, to a website - that, if it were a friend it would be one of those 'difficult' ones that wants precisely 2/3 of a spoon of sugar in their tea) I decided to walk, not run, up to Blackheath.  It is only a couple of miles.  The sun is shining and I imagine that this low-level activity is good for the knot that is still quite painful.  Halfway there, I have a sudden, sharp, stabbing pain in the upper part of my calf.  My other calf muscles (the gastrocs) have now gone into spasm, too. 

I grab my leg; the knot is the size of a squash ball.  How can my fitness level have dropped so severely that I can’t even walk a mile?  It wasn’t the discomfort that bothered me, but the fact that with every pulse of pain I was being reminded of the fact that I would have to spend even more time inside, at my computer, on the couch, marking.

The following morning I manage to get into my local physio.  I found this amazing fellow when I was training for the marathon.  Since then I have clung to him, limpet-like. I start telling him what has happened and as I’m doing this he begins to smile.

“Why are you smiling?”
“Is your back stiff?”
“Yes, a little, but nothing like my calves.”
“I think it’s your back.”

He was right, too.  I didn’t have a running injury, but a marking one.

As I sat for hours, marking, inputting data, screen-adminning, my lower back stiffened, hardened, swelled, slowly disrupting neural pathways from foot, to leg, to trunk, to spine. As the signals travelled up and down they became garbled and interpreted threat where there was none, so my lower leg (the end of the communication line) went into panic to protect itself from the perceived hazardous activity of walking a mile to Blackheath.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Touch of Sweet Liberty (Skinning in Paris)

Montparnasse - Paris
The banks of the Seine are overflowing.  As the tourist boats amble by the Louvre and the D’Orsay, wavelets lap onto the cobblestones, combing the emerald hair of the seaweed forth and back. The day has been long. A friend’s birthday, a short night’s sleep, and an early dash for the Eurostar. Paris! 
Always keen to walk, I made it from Gare du Nord to the hotel and then calculated why I felt so exhausted - I had covered over five miles with luggage. I say to myself, ‘I don’t want to run’. ‘I can’t run’. ‘I shall run’. Then I do run.
Here on research business, I have hitched a ride with the University of Kent’s Summer School party that are journeying to spend two weeks in Paris.  First, I meet Olly - a smartly turned-out (if a little bleary-eyed) film graduate, who - he tells me - hasn’t slept at all.  The Summer School consists of Kent’s bright young things and they seem an impressive bunch: enthusiastic, friendly, alert, interested, knowledgable, and they cut quite the dash. Once we reach Paris, we part company - they are off for a lecture at the Pompidou Centre this afternoon, and who knows what other treats in the next fortnight. I wave goodbye and wish them well. I begin my walk across the city.
When I finally arrive, the last thing I feel like doing is running.  And no matter how many times I go through this thought process, I never quite fully remember that this is exactly the point at which I SHOULD go running.  If you don’t want, if you don’t feel like, if you can’t be arsed, then you need a run.  I would do well to remember Rousseau’s mantra - from his Reveries of a Solitary Walker  'These hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself’.  Written mid 1770s, the book was incomplete at his death and has had a slow-burn effect since then on anglo/french philosophy and culture.  It is now counted as an influence by psychogeographers, situationists and new nature-writers.  For Rousseau, walking was a means of demarcating for himself, a kind of pleasure bought through self-knowledge, that society with others completely denied him. It was an escape from ‘the torrent of this world’.
I’m in Montparnasse.  I slip on my rubber soles and head out onto the streets.  I would go barefoot but I don’t know the territory.  As I turn the corner, I see that the ground is smooth, so I shuffle off my shoes, crumple them up in my hands and start running - two lads laugh as they see me do this.
The sun has been hot all day, but under foot the concrete is quite cool.  The instant I start running, feeling the solid ground beneath my feet, I begin to feel less tired.  I establish a comfortable pace, listen for the right kind of silence from my worn out feet, and settle into what is going to be a meditative pleasure.
I dodge into Luxembourg Gardens - mistake!  The pathways are wide and consist of sharp grit. Few would keep a straight face watching me jiggle in pain on it.  I head back for the streets, dancing between couples and kissing gates, and slip my shoes off again.
On the street, the crowd is thick with amblers and as I dodge between them (all the time trying to eye the unfamiliar  ground for dogshit and broken glass), I find myself making snap decisions about which route take, entirely down to which lights are on green or red.  The optimistic-me thinks he’s improvising, he's a gay flâneur, the pessimistic, is not so sure, and the image of a rat in a maze, following signals flashes into my head.
On my right, uphill, is the huge-domed PanthĂ©on.  It houses, amongst other things, the world's longest Foucault's Pendulum.  Throughout the day it rotates so a clock face can be placed beneath it and it can be used to tell the time. But,   Foucault discovered that it wasn't the pendulum that was changing direction; it swung along two dimensions only.  It was the earth beneath it that was spinning in space.  The entire world moves beneath us, but the pendulum's fulcrum remains static.
I had no idea that so many tourists (of which I am one) would be drawn to this area.  I start taking a long arc of pavement, finding a pathway through the crowd by running between them and a public exhibition of cycling photography.  I am uneasy doing this, it feels like photobombing someone's serene contemplation in a gallery.  There’s space again, so I step from the tunnel. And in this city of millions and millions, there is Olly, right in front of me. I feel suddenly present - no longer the observer. Coincidence destroys the gossamer veil of anonymity.
For the rest of the run I’m in a sort of haze.  The only punctuation to this is when I joust by another runner who exchanges a warm smile with me (they don’t do this in London). Her day is getting better, too, it seems.  Our smiles are the acknowledgement that in this bustle, this clamour, we have both sought out Rousseau’s ‘pleasing disquiet’, and have felt the desire to touch again a sweet liberty we once knew. 

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Earthing and the 'Bare' Barefoot

I have more running shoes than I do regular ones.  In fact, add up mine and my partner's regular shoes and I still have more running ones.  I like running in different shapes, types and heel drops.  About half of them are 'barefoot' shoes.  By this I mean that they are zero-drop (have no heel-raise at all), and have no cushioning, just 2-4mm of rubber to protect from grit and stones. But of all my shoes, these are the ones I use least.  Don't get me wrong, Vibrams and Vivobarefoots are great shoes, but they can't beat the onslaught of sensory feedback that the 200,000 subcutaneous receptors in your feet are itching to provide.  But there's more...

There is something about the bare barefoot, something shamanic, yogic, some electrical neuromagic that works between the soles of the feet and the brain.  The feeling after a barefoot run is somehow different to a shod one.  I always knew it was.  Could this be the reason?

There is a movement called 'earthing'.  Its basic tenet is that our bodies now spend a great deal of time disconnected from the earth. In evolutionary terms, this is a recent phenomenon.  It is thought by the earthers that our bodies build static, positive, charges relative to the earth.  Earthing the body, returns the voltage differential to zero and this is thought to provide benefits for mental and general well-being.  Some evidence for the health benefits of earthing has been provided (and you can read about it here.) But there has been a good deal of bad science, too.  More evidence is needed to substantiate the claims that "Reconnection with the earth’s electrons has been found to promote intriguing physiological changes and subjective reports of well-being." (Journal of Environmental and Public Health Volume 2012, Article ID 29154).  

Some studies have begun looking at the way that barefoot running shoes change our natural gait.  Vibrams have been linked with an increased propensity to heel-strike, for example (see Pete Larson's blog entry, here.

For me, earthing seems intriguing and provides an answer to a difference of experience that I had already noticed between barefoot running and running in barefoot shoes.  I would love to know more about the real physiological and psychological impact of earthing.  

Monday, 13 May 2013


[this post has nothing to do with running]

How do you feel about your Kindle? I can't fall in love with mine.

It occurred to me today as I sat in my bath reading Tolstoy’s The Cossacks that my Kindle makes me feel uncomfortable.  Why?  It has so much going for it.

1. It is lighter than a book.
2. It is backlit, so you don’t need to sit at awkward angles to catch the right light on the page.
3. It fits in a jeans pocket.
4. I can carry my library around with me.
5. I can make the font bigger - tiny font was the reason that it took me about fifteen years to get round to reading Crime and Punishment.
6. I can highlight passages that I can easily refer back to
7. I have no emotional connection with it, so when I do finally drop it in the bath I won’t care.
8. you can flip back and forwards between footnotes and pages.
9. you can 'search' a book.

When I first thought “You know, I just don’t like this thing.”  It was because I was sick of the light catching the entombed “KINDLE” logo that shouts out at me from below the screen.  "Kindle!" it screams, with every glint of light, like a crap toothpaste commercial.  I bought the thing, is it really necessary to advertise itself to me?  I have thought of attacking it with a piece of sandpaper but that would ruin it.  After that I started thinking that all the reasons I thought I liked the KINDLE! are actually quite tenuous.

1. Books aren’t heavy.
2. The contrast level between ink and page is still not matched by the KINDLE!.
3. But I never carry it in my jeans pocket.
4. I have never wanted to carry a library around with me.
5. Fair dos - this one is just better.
6. I highlight so many passages that it becomes completely meaningless to highlight passages. When I write in one of my books, I know that I really mean it.
7. I have never dropped a book in the bath, and what’s more, I like having emotional (real) connections with things.
8. Real books are much quicker at this.
9. ... really slowly and unreliably.

I’m also currently reading Susan Greenfield’s The Private Life of the Brain, and on the cover is a Penguin logo.  Is this any different to KINDLE!?  At first I thought not, then I realised that it differs in a number of ways.  The Penguin logo is not on every single page of the book, when I’m reading I’m not distracted by the Penguin.  Even if the logo were on every page, Penguin were the organisation that invested time, energy and money in the publication of this book.  By paying for this book I’m contributing to the continuance of a company that wants to produce more excellent books like this one.  I am also paying tax. Penguin pays its tax.  The shop that I bought it from pays its corporation tax. KINDLE!, does neither of these things.  It contributes to a fast-forming monopoly and does not use that money to invest in the writing of the future.

My KINDLE is going to be my emergency reader from now on.  I have flirted with the digital life, so it’s vinyl for me.

"No, it's not you. It's me. I'm just not ready for this level of commitment..."

Friday, 26 April 2013

Hardy and the Birds

"What's on the wireless?" he said.
"About the birds," she said.  "It's not only here, it's everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds." 
     When Daphne Du Maurier’s short story was first sent to her publisher to read, he told her it was ‘a masterpiece’ (Victor Gollancz was not often forthcoming with praise).  I am ashamed to say that I have not seen the Hitchcock film. The story is set in Cornwall, after the Second World War, a small family is trying to make its way working the land, and working for local landowners.  The tension in the story builds slowly from one that tells of freak encounters with nature to becoming one about the terrible dread of an all-out apocalypse. The birds – every one of them, gulls, wrens, sparrows, hawks – attack the countryside’s inhabitants.   Flailing arms, fires, shotguns and cars are useless against their sheer numbers.     Radio broadcasts from London cease.  Flocks bring down aeroplanes.  They smash through windows and kill householders.  Neighbours are found dead.  We never find out why.
     Their behaviour is inexplicable.
     They are birds.
     When I used to run along the seafront in Brighton there was a sight, familiar to us all no doubt, that I tried countless times to photograph but it was uncaptureable.  Waves of starlings would tidally swoop and swirl, sometimes for hours, around the bombed-out remains of the West Pier.
     You cannot grasp in a frame the soaring and stunning four-dimensionality of this dance of clouds. As Ruskin said of water, 'It is like trying to paint a soul'.  The sight is an overwhelming one: centrifugal spinning and turning like ink in water.  This movement cannot be reduced to the stiff and flattened dimensions of a photograph.
   We look up and witness that.  I wonder what they see when they look down at a crowded mass of 35,000 people in their two-dimensional world? Do they watch them shuffle through the funnel of the marathon startline like shapes on a piece of paper?  We share much experience with birds: we eat, we sing, we shit, we live, we die, but there is no language that can describe the wonderful fluidity of this sight. They are just so different from us.
      Taking 'time' out of the equation, we pretend that we live in three-dimensions, but we don’t – not really.  We do occupy the third dimension (of course we do), but we don’t regularly take advantage, or make much use, of it.   I was lucky enough to go to New York a few years ago, and there it struck me for the first time how very flat our lives can be.  Being shown to my hotel room I had to equalize in the lift, and then decompress on my flight back down to the lobby. Throughout the few days of the stay we were always moving across, along, high-up and all-the-way back.   It is the only place that I ever really noticed this; elsewhere we just seem to exploit two dimensions.  Edwin A. Abbott’s satirical Flatland of 1884 is a gem.  It is a post-Euclidian fantasy of inter-dimensional travel where beings (shapes) who live in the two dimensions of Flatland struggle to understand the possibility of a third.  The polygonal hero meets the Sphere who tries to explain the third dimension.  To do so, they travel to one-dimensional Lineland, and no-dimensional Pointland, where they appear as an idea in the head of its only inhabitant. It is like Plato’s Cave in The Republic where the ‘truth’ teller is ultimately punished for possessing dangerous and fantastical ideas.  But Flatland is also about our inability to see beyond the dimensions of our own comprehension.  The 2D and 3D dimensional-tourists do actually appear to the inhabitants of Lineland, for example, but only as one-dimensional lines (not the squares and spheres of their ‘real’ bodies).  Ultimately, the novel is a satire that exposes our inability to perceive that which we are not programmed to see.    Hardy also tries to make us aware of such perspectival partiality in The Mayor of Casterbridge in describing the eponymous city: ‘To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field.’ Hardy does his best to subsume the mysteries of brickwork, roads, roof slates, and the windows of the townscape into a kind of avian cognitive representation. The brevity of the language may appear half-hearted but the simplicity and directness of it is its strength.  The bird’s eye description uses only visually-descriptive abstract nouns, for humanity the trees’ proper names are reinstated - correct taxonomy is a human endeavour, not a natural one.
     Much later, in his notes that would become the Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein, always a savant philosopher riveted by the powers and peculiarities of language, wondered

25. It is sometimes said: animals do not talk because they lack the mental abilities. And this means: “They do not think, and that is why they do not talk.” But – they simply do not talk. Or better: they do not use language – if we disregard the most primitive forms of language. – Giving orders, asking questions, telling stories, having a chat, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.
                                                                              Wittgenstein – Philosophical Investigations

     They do not talk means only that they do not talk.  Did Wittgenstein really believe that they did not use language, that they did not communicate?  If like me you have run in a field of crows and met their stare – and I am sure you have – you could not even consider that they do not think.  The stare is not unidirectional, it is returned.  We may see ourselves in it, but there is something else there too.
     In 2008 an ongoing study was first reported that had been conducted at the Washington School of Forest Resources in which crows were trapped, banded and released by mask-wearing staff. They discovered two surprising things. First, that after five years and counting, banded crows still remembered the masks and would hound and dive at the staff. Second, that crows that were not involved in the experiment in any way also joined in the angry mob that jeered the mask-wearing staff over a mile away from the original incident.
     John Marzluff went so far as to assert that some of the crows were able to ‘make and use tools, forecast future events, understand what other animals know, and — in our [experiment] — learn from individual experience as well as by observing parents and peers’.   The birds were capable of ‘advanced cognitive tasks shown by only a few animals’.
     So they do not use ‘language’ professor Wittgenstein, really?
     Hardy again dramatizes the complexity of our anthro/avian relationship simply and effectively in the opening pages to Jude the Obscure.  The young Jude is employed by the farmer as a living scarecrow – they had gotten used to the static and silent kind.  The young Jude, though, empathizes with the birds
"Poor little dears!" said Jude, aloud. "You SHALL have some dinner - you shall. There is enough for us all. Farmer Troutham can afford to let you have some. Eat, then my dear little birdies, and make a good meal!"    They stayed and ate, inky spots on the nut-brown soil and Jude enjoyed their appetite. A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.
     No reader of Jude the Obscure forgets reading it.  The punishment meted out to Jude in the novel is so unrelenting that Claire Tomalin recently described the experience of reading it to being continually slapped in the face. In chapter two of the novel, Jude’s empathy with the birds reveals him as one not fit for the battle of modern life upon which he is about to engage. Civilization requires disconnection from nature, and this is Jude’s tragic flaw: he is of the earth, yet he seeks out the city and society of Christminster.  The city, just like Farmer Troutham, does not care for this ill-adapted and unfit specimen.
     When nature meets culture they do not speak in the same language.
     For me, one of the harder things about living in London is the litter. Litter is such a strange word. It sounds clean, like someone has crumpled up a blank piece of paper and tossed it aside to become a tumbleweed snowflake. When I say litter, I mean the mysterious and variegated palimpsest of stains that tattoo the pavement like some antique map, liquids that had flowed-across or impact-splattered onto the concrete; or Big Mac boxes and Red Bull cans, flattened and tyre-tracked; a laceless shoe; jewels of broken glass; a Capri-Sun sachet with a pink straw extruding from it; blackened chewing gum; broken elastic bands; mouldy trays of tomatoes; even a bed – it was a double.   All of these have featured in the ‘still life of modernity’ at the bottom of my road. The worst of these, though, is one of the most regular offenders: chicken bones.  Stepping on one is utterly gruesome. It was once a body, now here is a single piece of it. It has been held in someone's hand - traces of the grease are probably still on their fingers.   It has been in someone's mouth. And now it is tossed aside. Under your shoe, it crunches to the marrow in that flint-sharp way that only chicken does and you are now carrying a little piece of this confluence of biological history with you.  The interconnection is complex, intimate, somehow wrong.
     There is a convergence of chicken opportunities at the turn of our road.  There is a KFC (which as Jonathan Safran Foer has recently noted, now stands not for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but for nothing - it is just K.F.C.). There is also a Chicken ‘heaven’, ‘paradise’ or ‘cottage’ - I could check the name by walking a 100 yards down my street, then write pages on the trickeries and nuances of their shudderingly awful and misleading brand name and happy-chick logo, but they just don’t deserve the effort. In a moment of weakness – I think it might have been my birthday – I called in there for a veggie burger and chips.  It wasn’t very nice.  At 4am I was feverishly vomiting the lot back up.
     On another morning I woke up to find a rib on my balcony. I did not check but I don’t think it was a human rib.  It was cut cleanly and there was nothing on it.  A machine could not have removed the meat from this bone more efficiently.  I live several floors up so I don’t think a drunken (or sober) passer-by could have managed the throw.  It must have come from the sky.  But from where?  How far had it travelled?  Where was the rest of its body?  Dispersed throughout the take-aways of Europe?  In a freezer somewhere?  Buried and forgotten by some dog in a suburban garden?  Eaten?
        John Clare was fluent in the exploration and the sinewy complexities of our relationship with the natural world. This is from ‘The Badger’
The dogs are clapped and urged to join the fray'
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with dogs for hours and beats them all.
He tries to reach the woods, and awkward race,
But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase.
He turns again and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and crackles, groans, and dies.
     There are numerous ways that this poem may be read: as a metaphor for man’s troubled relationship with Christ, as metonym for Clare himself and his treatment by society or even in the lunatic asylum that he spent much of his later life, or is the badger a synecdoche for nature itself?  All of these readings are productive, but the final one is a brutally pessimistic vision of what happens when civilization and nature meet. In this reading the choice of the badger is an apt one because its suffering is of no use.  Foxes kill chickens.  Wolves kill sheep.  The powers of nature (dogs, sticks and foxes) are rallied against the badger but for no reason beyond that of the baiters’ savage fun.   The poem holds up a mirror to sanity and civilization and in any of the readings I have suggested, we are always the baiters.
     For John Berger, the companionship that we once had with animals is quickly being lost. Mechanization, profit, and interference in the food chain have all become a normal part of what we understand as industrialized animal agriculture. We pay for it with health scares and pandemics like BSE and H1N1, among others.   Each exposes the tenderness of what to me at least – and to many others I’m sure – is a clear dividing line of opposition. Nature surely should support civilization, not be plundered, consumed and destroyed by it.   If the foundations are destroyed what chance is there for the structures it supports?
     In History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukacs suggested that nature ‘acknowledges the meaning of what has grown organically, […] in contrast to the artificial structures of human civilization.  At the same time, it can be understood as that aspect of human inwardness which has remained natural, or at least tends or longs to become natural once more.’  For Berger, here, ‘the life of a wild animal becomes an ideal, an ideal internalised as a feeling surrounding a repressed desire.’   But this desire does not need to be either repressed or a hopeless ideal.  In Berger’s terms it is unattainable, but there is more than the either/or option than he suggests.  The desire to return to nature is knowingly unattainable and fleeting, just as the blissful satisfaction of a drink of chilled water after a long run is also only a fleeting pleasure, but the pleasure brings with it real and necessary benefits to the body that have a far greater longevity than the few moments of satiation that they delivered.
   The desire to return to nature may be a hopeless ideal, but it is still one that we can turn to.
    For me, Du Maurier's birds are a fervid and omnipresent reminder of our uncanny relationship with modernity, we are not at home in its skin - we should be in ours.  They are a reminder too of our inability to leave behind the natural world, and perhaps the story is an exercise in our guilt at taking possession of it so fiercely.  These are after all, as Marzluff suspects, things able to ‘make and use tools', forecast the future, understand other animals and learn from them.  They are capable of ‘advanced cognitive tasks’.
      Today, slowing for the last hundred yards before home, I readied myself to negotiate whatever ‘litter’ might be waiting for me.   Turning the corner I saw two pigeons fight as they pecked and tossed a dirty, gnawed chicken bone.