Category Archives: Me; running

Heat

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Today, the Judge will be kind
He will listen to my client.
Today, the the Judge will lift a hand to his face
And hide the sun glaring through the window
Permit the uneven clanking of the fan
Forgive the cracked plaster of the courtroom walls
He will be satisfied
That it is right and necessary to put rent before food
(No-one is proposing that the children should starve).

And today the costs of public welfare
Which 47 times you voted to cut
Will be that bit less.
Because what winner with the public would expect
A mother with a young child
In work, on benefits,
To eat all seven days of the week.

“What else can I do?” Not a question but a challenge
You said those words before leaving for Iraq
The sadness caught drily in your voice
All those plans of yours
Overcome by the noonday heat – your eyes cast down
But that was long ago, before
You promised that hope and history would rhyme.

You could have been a teacher
It is a bland kind of goodness, unshowy
And it would have been better
Than what you have become.
You might have swept the streets
You laugh! A man like you: a hero;
But don’t the streets still need to be swept?
No worker in blue overalls
Ever had the chance
To make three million people poorer
With one vote.

Today the Judge will be kind.
But tomorrow the rains will fall.
Hard, dry, unforgiving.

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The enemy that returns

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A friend and I were talking the other day. You’ve always lived in London, haven’t you, I said. Except for those five years I spent in prison, he answered. I laughed awkwardly. It seemed so exaggerated; if you’ve been inside real prisons then what right… But I knew what he meant.

I used to think that it was the place I hated: the book of rules, the wooden walls into which six centuries of predecessors’ names had been carved the letters as sharp as teeth, the fifty thou a year fees, the high walls of class and gender and race apartheid which determined who got in, the small mindedness of the teachers, the thousand different plans the institution had for making everyone inside that bit smaller than we’d been.

But as I get older I acknowledge it wasn’t the place: it was the people. It was the way money swirled around them, the six square streets of London (never more than six) to which everyone retreated when the terms ended. Their idea of the world that it consisted of people like them and no-one else, no-one, came close to counting.

I was there for five years. I survived only in the company of people who were as uncomfortable there as I was. The bitter, the bright, the angry, the ones whose parents had borrowed the fees from more successful cousins, the ones who escaped in their dreams to Soho.

We were at one extreme. Another group, the large majority, got on with it. Played cricket, football, the field game, the wall game, fives. Planned the career they’d have, their Daddy’s bank.

At the far side of them there was another group: the ones the least comprehensible to me. The boys for whom this place was the best imaginable, the best of times, its emptiness its snobbery a utopia, a nirvana, their own private Petrograd and this was their October 1917.

Boris wasn’t even my contemporary, but he returned to the school every year after he’d left, sounding out his favourite teachers, seeking out the titled children five ten years his junior. A flash of blond hair, unmistakeable. Even then he was looking for allies, a better class of servant to advance his future glittering career.

I saw him later, once. It was the night the Law Lords had determined Pinochet should remain in jail. I watched as he wooed a drinks party full of ageing London leftists 68ers gone to seed. Between drinks, Boris would scour the room, work out who was standing furthest from him, who was averting their eyes. Those he wooed, a very British Clinton, passing on some quip he’d used a hundred times before. Don’t underestimate his skill at causing potential antagonists to tolerate him.

For five years I ran, round a track I escaped and then! in crowds our fists raised. Thatcher fell. When I left my best happiness was the certainty that I’d never see Boris or Rory or Jo or Jacob again. Their return is the cruellest trick life ever played.

Knut Hamsun, ‘Hunger’

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hunger

Hunger, republished this year to mark the 125th anniversary of its original appearance, is one of those rare and compelling books which feel like they were written decades out of time.

With its sparse writing, modest plot and starving and dishonest narrator, Hunger feels like it should have been written three decades later by a Kafka or a Camus, responding to the horrors of the trenches, the possibilities of a revolution or the threat of its defeat.

Even to speak of Hunger’s plot is to give the impression of substance when, for the majority of the book, the story meanders between seemingly unrelated incidents.

The narrator comes to a city, he starves. He offers articles to a newspaper, he worries about his rent. He sells an article but even this successful commission leads only to further moments of hunger. He is evicted from his room.

The narrator neither learns nor changes and the reader never has a sense of a mission for him to complete or fail. He flirts with a girl, unsuccessfully. At the end of the story and, without purpose, he leaves the city.

Two scenes give a flavour of the book. Near the beginning, the narrator encounters an old beggar. Drunk with hunger and despising the old man’s frailty, the narrator decides to pawn his waistcoat and give the money to the beggar. The recipient is stupefied by the gift and silent. The narrator shouts and swears at his ingratitude.

Returning to the pawnbroker, the narrator seeks the return of the pencil-stub which he has left in one of the waistcoat pockets. The broker lets him take the pencil. Filled with energy, the narrator tells him that it was used previously to write a three-volume philosophical treatise. The pawnbroker humours his blatant lie.

Many generations of readers have sought to impose a logic on Hunger by calling it an existential novel or portraying the narrator as a zero in search of meaning or the opposite: a person seeking to discard meaning by starving himself to death.

The process of giving the novel meaning is encumbered by the events of Hamsun’s life.
The older the Norwegian writer got, the more right-wing he became. Wooed by Hitler, he wooed the nazis back and although his eventual meeting with the fuehrer in 1943 disappointed the latter, Hamsun never disowned fascism.

A letter to Hamsun by his publisher in 1946 strikes a chord with many disappointed readers: “There are few people I have admired as much as you, few I have loved so. None has disappointed me more.”

The conventional response to Hamsun’s politics is to say that he adopted them later in life and that the novel should not be blamed for the author’s subsequent follies.

This is too simple. Hunger does have a philosophy and is coherent in its own terms. If not fascistic, it is certainly misanthropic.

Reading Hunger in 2016, it’s not hard not to feel that the “personality” of the book is hostile and yet the novel is a thing of beauty — a frosty winter’s landscape to watch and admire but not to live in.

Originally published in the Morning Star

 

On not running at all

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calf pack

A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about not running a marathon, since then I’ve not been running at all. When  you see a physio, what they are usually looking for is evidence that you’ve been overworking your body, most often by running too far. If not, then by running too fast. The more memorable cases are ones where there has been some change of technique without increased effort. In runners, that might be something like a new pair of shoes subtly altering your “form”, ie your running technique.

The following (me at the start of this month) constitutes a kind of full house: new running shoes, increased mileage (60 miles in one week), two races in successive days, the second of which was a pb of sorts (10k on the road). In the same seven days which had seen all of these changes, I’d also been experimenting with running with music. Normally, that isn’t my thing at all but I was enjoying playing my phone on shuffle and seeking how even the dullest and most formulaic music (Fields of Athenry by the Dropkick Murphys, bless them) would give my tired muscles a jolt. Six kilometres into my last race, I could feel a soreness in the middle of my left calf. By the race’s final 100 metres my leg was a sniper’s victim taking bullet after bullet.

Three weeks with no running, the physio says. Three weeks at a minimum.

 

On not running marathons

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gurningLyon

There are so many good reasons for not running marathons. The training for a start. A standard marathon training plan will invite the runner to build up their distance until they are running 80 to 100 miles without difficulty every week. At the slow speed that I need to run those distance, in order to avoid injury, that’s around 10 hours running every week, on top of which you can add about half the same time again in the hot baths I take (again, to avoid injury) every time I have run further than two or three miles. That’s two hours you have to find every waking day, time you lose between being with the boys when they awake, taking them to school, cooking for them, their bed time story, their coding club, their swimming or their football teams. Ten hours a week for thirteen weeks: that’s the writing of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or The Remains of the Day .

Then there’s the pain. So far this year, I have run indoor track races at 400, 800, 1500 and 3000 metres. At every one of those distances I could feel my speed deteriorating the longer the race went on. The last of those races, a 3000 metres on the steep blue banked-track at Lee Valley, I ran the final kilometre a full thirty seconds slower than the first k. That’s what lactic acid does, it hurts. The bounce with which you set off: it departs. Your knees, which once lifted from the track in something like a bicycle motion, shuffle. Your feet lift so heavy from the ground. Friends tells me that they survive distance races by breathing in ever deeper mouthfuls of oxygen, in their own private approximation of a woman giving birth, “Gas and air. Gas and air.” “I want an epidural now.” I’m sorry, the marathon midwife says, you’ve got four hours thirty minutes of just air and air.

I’m not a long-distance runner; I weight too much. My bones are too big. Vestigial as those muscles may be, I did once have some fast-twitch muscle in my legs and its memory and its burden remains.  In the distance past I used this blog to sing the praises of a kind of running, middle-distance running, which suits a personality trait so deep – my preference for the sudden burst over the slow journey. I’ve run a lot since then, 100 miles a month for the last five years but never once have I managed 100 or even 80 miles a week.

“The party of home ownership”

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So how many properties do you own? “I own a house in North Kensington which you’ve been to and my house in the constituency in Oxfordshire and that is, as far as I know, all I have.”

A house in Cornwall? “No, that is, Samantha used to have a timeshare in South Devon but she doesn’t any more.” And there isn’t a fourth? “I don’t think so – not that I can think of.” Please don’t say, “Not that I can think of.” “You might be … Samantha owns a field in Scunthorpe but she doesn’t own a house…”

Source: Times [David Cameron forgetting how many houses he owns, May 2009]

“We’re not bothering you, we’re from the press”

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I have extracted the sound file of Jeremy Corbyn being harassed by the media on Sunday. They have already caused suffering by door-stepping several members of his extended family, people who never chose to be in the limelight, and are entitled to their privacy.

After a while you stop listening to the questions, and hear only the answer, the rhythm of Corbyn’s feet. He walks as a sometime runner might, with purpose. You can also hear his fatigue. This is a figure, after all, who has given more than 100 speeches to his supporters in three months, and addressed (in addition) so many joint debates that his rivals (20 years his junior) are exhausted. As her prepared himself for his victory he may well have thought, naively, that a holiday was in order.

So much of all our collective longing is invested in him. How heavy that burden must be.

Whatever scenario you might paint in your imagination as to how socialism “should” come about, do not kid yourself that the path would be any easier for an English Trotsky, a British Che, a North London Bakunin.

“Why do you keep walking”, he is asked, “and not answering the question?”

In the press reports, it is said that Corbyn is rescued by an aide, but I’m pretty sure it is in fact his son Tommy – good on him.

And then the journalist becomes conscious, for a moment, of where he is and what he is doing. “Jeremy, we’re not bothering you, we’re from the press.” Well, what do you think you are doing? It is not enough to say ‘our job’. Everyone, whatever they do, always has a choice.