Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Friday, 30 September 2011

Welcome to 'The Zone'

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Run. Riot. Riot-run.

Run. Riot. Riot-run.
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?’, he 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 cars clog the main artery into London.   They are stationary in all directions.  There are police on the concourse.  Immediately, I step back on to the train.  I will walk back from the next stop.  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 anagrammatical 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 the 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 closed.  The shutters are down on the electrical shops.  Even the pound shops are closed, the ‘99p shop’ though has had its windows smashed.
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 descend into Greenwich and it looks like a normal sunny day.  I circumnavigate the one-way system and everything seems normal. 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 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 traffic that he cannot see.  With my trailing shoulder, I hit him so hard that I nearly knock him down.  Idiot.  Fury rises.  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 take 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.
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. 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 out my nonsensical and sincere reply.  ‘You should try it.‘  
Perhaps she should.   
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 records, among other things, my heart rate.  On the graph, there is a sharp red spur just before I entered the park and took off my shoes.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The sign 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 Thirty Years

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 be 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

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.’

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