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?