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What I write about when I write about running

June 28, 2020

I have an article in Issue #24 of Like the Wind.

The story behind this piece sticks in my mind for two reasons. Firstly, it was an early statement of intent that 2020 would be the year I take writing more seriously. Secondly, I wrote it on the cusp of the pandemic.

It marks a phase just before the world changed – and so, by fateful coincidence, echoes the work that inspired it.

The article is a leap-year baby. I wrote 1500 words on 29 February, which I then edited and submitted on 1 March. I know this because the germ of the idea came to me while sitting the ADC Theatre bar during the interval of a production of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

Late February was in the early days of the crisis. Restaurants and cafes had started to put more distance between their tables. Signs had gone up in bathrooms about thoroughly washing hands. Soap was a commodity. Loo roll was plentiful. But, I was glad to have an aisle seat with a spare next to me.

‘Time Passes’ takes its title from a different Woolf novel: To the Lighthouse. More specifically, it takes its title from the short section at the heart of the novel that separates the two principal parts by ten years.

After three months, lockdowns are lifting, but we’re not done with the crisis yet. The UK is already looking at the prospect of localised lockdowns as the virus continues to pose a threat. India is looking at a worsening crisis. Things appear to be heading in a grim direction in parts of the USA.

If you’re looking for something meditative and absorbing, that reflects the strange spirit of the time, but offers to restore some hope, give To the Lighthouse a go.

But also, give an indie mag a go (and read my piece).

Little reminders

June 15, 2020
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Every now and then there’s an unexpected reminder: there but for the grace of god go I.

I have a regular cycle route. A neat 14-mile loop that takes in a mix of fields, and hills, and riverside. My least-favourite stretch is early in. A long straight road that switches to national speed limit between villages, the road surface pocked and worn by fast, heavy traffic.

I was just coming to this stretch when I saw another cyclist take a nasty fall. No traffic involved. But he lay there in the middle of this busy road, not moving, a dark pool of blood on the tarmac.

A walker, a passing driver, and I stopped to help. I blocked the road and called the emergency services, the others got him out of harm’s way. An ambulance came quickly, checked him out, started the process of persuading him to go to hospital.

Once I was no longer needed, I got on my way.

Ten – maybe fifteen – minutes had passed, but it set the tone for my thoughts the rest of the ride.

Life changes slowly or not at all, and then can change completely in the blink of an eye. As far as I know, the man’s okay – shaken, cut and bruised, but nothing more serious. But it could have been very different.

You can bubble-wrap your life to avoid any kind of risk, but what kind of a life is that? Far better to be doing the things you love and living well while you can.

The hard miles

June 7, 2020

Here we are, again.

If you read nothing else, read this excellent piece by Gary Younge on systemic inequality in the UK and US, and the protest against the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd.

Protests have been held, online and irl, over the past two weeks. Anger and solidarity has flooded out worldwide. Maybe this time’s different?

Individuals, corporations, celebrities and brands flooded social media with black squares to express solidarity on #blackoutTuesday. Well-meaning earnest statements were crafted and released, white font, black background. ‘We are shocked…’ ‘We are appalled…’ ‘We condemn in the strongest possible fashion…’

And who can disagree with these sentiments?

But here’s the thing: words are cheap, action is hard.

This post discusses HarperCollins simply because its example is so visible. I don’t work for HarperCollins, and perhaps it’s unfair to single them out. However, the systemic issues in publishing are not confined to HarperCollins. They are industry-wide, but perhaps less starkly obvious.

The system

HarperCollins is one of the ‘Big 5’, a group of the largest English-language publishers the are responsible for a significant majority of trade publishing around the world. On 1 June, a week after the killing of George Floyd, they put out a statement on social media:

As is common in our trade, HarperCollins publishes under a number of different imprints. Each imprint focuses on its own niche.

Broadside Books launched in 2010 to ‘publish books on the culture wars, books of ideas, books of revisionist history, biographies, anthologies, polemical paperbacks and pop-culture books from a conservative point of view.

[Quick pause here, in case ‘revisionist history’ didn’t start alarm bells ringing. It really should.]

It is currently promoting The MAGA Doctrine: The Only Ideas that Will Win the Future, the cover of which features President Trump (who has rightly been criticised for pouring petrol on the fire) hugging the American flag.

Conservative voices are as entitled to a platform as liberal voices. But let’s be straight, this isn’t about free speech. HarperCollins is a for-profit company. Broadside was launched to capitalise on the rise of right-wing politics and angry Breitbart-style polemic.

Broadside is not a passive platform. It plays to the choir.

Publishing has an issue with diversity. It is an overwhelmingly white middle-class profession. In recent years, publishers have tried to address this through routes into the industry.

HarperCollins runs several diversity programmes, listed here. In fact, HarperCollins is the only publisher to have been named as one of Business in the Community’s Best Employers for Race.

This is evidence of an effort to address the some of the same systemic issues that HarperCollins seeks to commercially exploit through its Broadside Books imprint. Yet this kind of cake-and-eat-it approach is precisely the problem: does the tone at the top match the initiatives often driven by the organisation’s lower ranks?

Low pay and emotional labour

One of the common criticisms with diversity schemes is that they funnel people towards the lowest paid roles, often working in the most expensive cities in the UK, whether staff turnover is high. Relatively few hires stay in the industry long enough to progress, so management and leadership remains much as before.

In addition, drives to improve diversity disproportionately put the labour on black and minority staff. The department I work in at Cambridge University Press is by far the most diverse department I’ve worked in. Yet, the (often emotional, often tiring) work of championing diversity has fallen conspicuously on a small number of colleagues. No prizes for guessing which ones.

A couple of years ago the University ran the Black Cantabs exhibition to highlight the achievement of its black students. In 2016, only 1.5% of the University’s undergraduate intake was black compared with a national average of 8%. The exhibition was intended to encourage black and minority applications, underpinned by the ethos of ‘you can’t be it if you can’t see it’. It profiled 15 black alumni. Posters were placed around the Press to encourage people to visit the exhibition – and to encourage conversations about diversity.

Which it duly did… I heard reports of one comment: ‘There are more black people on those posters than work at the Press.’ There are 1200 people who work at the Press, and 3% of the British population is black so even if all these alumni had suddenly found themselves working in the organisation we still wouldn’t be representative.

Real change is hard

The problem with systemic inequality is that while it harms – kills, even – the oppressed, it bolsters those in power. To address these issues, we’re going to have to make hard decisions. Decisions about what we want the industry – our businesses – ourselves – to stand for. Because it isn’t conscionable to carry on as we are.

I don’t have the answers for how to address all the issues – but I guess that’s kind of the point. We have to collectively address them together. We have to build a consensus, and maybe if this moment is good for anything, it’s for looking around and acknowledging that change is necessary, important, urgent – and possible.

Listen.

Punch up, not down.

Use your voice to amplify others.

The protests and campaigns will fade, the next outrage will come along, and that’s when the hard miles begin.

A change of scenery

May 31, 2020

The past few months I’ve existed over a smaller area than in many, many years. Life has vacuum packed itself to – at best – a square mile. It has contorted itself to cling to the networks of previously unexplored streets on our doorstep in much the same way plastic clings to the contours of udon noodles.

Things have relaxed in recent weeks, it’s true. Unlimited exercise means absolute freedom – provided you don’t need the toilet. But even though my morning commute closely resembles a stumbling act from shower to desk, my horizons have remained much the same as before. Back when leaving the house was only permissible for essential shopping, one daily exercise, or an unbroken 260-mile car journey to Durham to check one’s eyesight—

No, sorry, that last one doesn’t apply to the likes of you or me.

Unlimited exercise presupposes unlimited leisure time. However, complaining about free time as we careen into the deepest recession since 1930 is the absolute definition of first world problems.

But the thing I’ve come to appreciate over the last few weeks has been the relative freedom of an evening cycle. To escape into the countryside, whip past fields and hedgerows, climb whatever counts for a hill round here, and see the city crouched low in the thinning sun is to squeeze the very best from this particular lemon.

And it’s made all the better by the relative quiet of the roads. Although maybe that’s because if you find yourself round this way when you’re aiming for Barnard Castle, you really should have gone to Specsavers.

Ennui of the state

May 24, 2020

Do you feel a restlessness? That sense you’re waiting for something – anything – to happen and yet, still, each day passes the same as the last. The rapid drama of the beginning of the crisis has passed, the peak has passed, and yet we still wait because the danger has not passed.

If you’re fortunate enough to be sheltered from the worst of the crisis, by now you’re intimately familiar with the contours of boredom. Uncertainty is many things – stressful, frustrating, immoveable – and yet who’d have thought it was so dull?

I’ve resisted the capitalism 2.0 side-hustle BS of ‘if you didn’t achieve [productivity goal] in lockdown, maybe time wasn’t your problem’ that marked the first weeks of the crisis.

But this is the golden hour.

Because if it’s true that nothing is certain, then it’s equally true that everything is possible.

My act of radical optimism has been to throw down some words each morning. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not, but showing up is half the battle. A day with time spent fingers hovering blankly over the keys is better than a day without. But it’s been getting easier: 9000 words in March; 9000 words in April; 11,000 words so far in May.

Ennui is an energy, and maybe – just maybe – now’s the time to channel it.

Furrows and fronts

May 18, 2020

You can only fight a battle on so many fronts. Every front requires contact with the enemy, and every contact with the enemy entails friction. Too many fronts and you’re surrounded. Despite the beard-and-abs combo that launched a thousand personal trainers’ promotional efforts in the mid-naughties, we all know how 300 ended.

(I ask myself: Why reach for a military analogy? The physics of the peloton would be more appropriate, the streamlining of effort to maintain maximum forward motion while conserving energy for the final slog. Fewer LOLs, though.)

My work is diverse and wide-ranging, switching between projects and contexts, juggling information and ideas. But my pastimes and interests are narrow and focused. Reading, writing, running, occasionally painting. I seek comfort in and draw energy from mono-tasking. Each is a furrow, that can be ploughed long, and narrow, and deep. (Not a trench. This is where life grows, not where battles are fought.)

Extremes teach us about ourselves, and six (maybe more – who knows at this point) weeks of lockdown would be wasted without some reflection. The thing lockdown has reminded me is that if you want to move fast, embrace the narrow. Whittle down, regather and focus, and don’t be afraid to discard.

The problem of the third act

May 11, 2020

Bill Wilder famously said: ‘If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.’ He was talking about storytelling and the way that the first act has to set up the groundwork for the resolution for the end to be satisfying.

It’s a curiously universal rule.

Any run – whether a race, a training session, or simply those enjoyable junk miles that your Garmin harshly categorises as unproductive – is divided into (potentially unequal) thirds.

The beginning, when you’re easing into the run.

The middle, when you’re cruising.

The end, when you’re finding out whether you could tack on a couple more miles or dear god can’t we just stop now?

More often than not, the dear-god-stop-now runs start with an over-punchy beginning. A good beginning requires control, structure, and pacing. Endings are tricky, but beginnings – particularly in this cooped-up time when this may be the only outlet at the end of a day – are harder.

Lockdown routine

May 4, 2020

We are what we routinely do, and excellence is not an act but a habit. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know. And if lockdown’s good for nothing else it’s surely a breeding ground for routine excellence.

Back in the day, I’d have probably written some chipper post about how this was like an elite training camp where all the noise and distractions of life were stripped back to allow us to focus on running. And sure, this is just like an altitude camp at Iten. Sure.

So what does my elite training camp in lockdown look like? What is my most excellent routine?

  • Wake, listen to birdsong, think that today will definitely be an early night. Eventually get up, later than planned.
  • Tea.
  • Write – filling a blank page with words feels like an act of radical optimism.
  • Tea.
  • Shower.
  • Fire up the computer and so begin the day’s work. (Tea.) Emails and documents are handled in the office. (Tea.) Meetings are held in a variety of venues dotted around the house, whichever is most out of my partner’s way. (Second-guessing each other’s meeting schedule and lunch window is proving impossible. We are two weeks away from implementing a meeting room booking system.)
  • Tea.
  • Lunch. (Which features a daily side-mission: can I cook a viable meal in one pan to save washing up? Bonus points if it can be eaten from the pan. Power up if it’s good for more than one day.)
  • Back to the computer for the afternoon shift.
  • Tea.
  • Eventually shut down, safe in the knowledge that what I had planned to achieve is at best half-done and that my to-do list has – appropriately enough – increased exponentially.
  • State-sanctioned exercise. On a good day, a run or a cycle. On a middling day, walk to the shop to pick up whatever essential we’re suddenly short of. On a bad day, housework.
  • Dinner.
  • Aim to read, but sometimes find the evening sucked into the vortex of the hell-site.
  • Drink, inevitably.
  • Bed, later than every good intention. Maybe tomorrow.

And when every day looks the same, how do you mark the beginning of the weekend? Go nuts with Netflix and a takeaway. Wild times.

There are good days and bad days, and a very fine line between them. But maybe, if you search for it, there’s a silver lining. I’ve got a more regular running routine than I’ve had in years. I’m appreciating each run more than I have in years. And I’ve taken 5 minutes off my regular running route over the last six weeks.

So, yeah, maybe this is my budget lockdown elite training camp.

Choose your own adventure

April 27, 2020

There are two paths before you, one bleached white and open in the sun, teaming with runners and cyclists and pedestrians, the other weaving narrowly through fecund woodland echoing with the calls of wood pigeon, the occasional growl of a dog. One is busy, but with plenty of open space. The other is quiet, but enclosed and narrow. Which do you choose?

More to the point, when do you choose? Early as the sun is rising? In the mid-morning between breakfast and lunch? In that gap when lunchtime would normally be? In the afternoon – when surely everyone else will be out for their state-sanctioned constitutional? Or early evening, as the sun’s drifting towards the horizon when the evening air shows you its teeth?

Every socially distanced walk or run or cycle is, at its heart, the prisoner’s dilemma. Do you go out in the prime of the day, knowing that it might be busy? Do you go to the best-known spots, or do you try to explore somewhere equally local, but less on the beaten path? And what do you think other people will do? Because if no one goes for the prime spots at the height of the day, well, you’re going to have an uncomfortably busy walk at the fag-end of the day.

A side-effect of the global pandemic is that it will make game theorists of us all.

A month of Sundays

April 20, 2020

When asked, how will we describe what it was really like to live through these strange times?

[These strange times. The phrase concatenates out, reflected and refracted like a hall of mirrors. I hope this email finds you well in these strange times. I hope you’re keeping well in these strange times, but I’d like to check you’re still working to the dates we agreed before The Event. We find ourselves in strange times and I hope you and your family are well, but I’m afraid our deadlines remain unaffected. In these strange times – all best wishes to you and yours – when time’s instrument is an accordion, and minutes are simultaneously months and moments, it is grounding and comforting to gravitate around routines, and processes, and dates, and deadlines, such as yours, which was last Thursday.]

Running through the centre of Cambridge – normally a route to avoid, teaming with shoppers and tourists and students and rickety shoals of bikes – on a sunny afternoon is both refreshingly pleasant and eerie. For a moment it’s like nothing I’ve experienced before, until I remember the riots. Those strange few days in the midst of a London heatwave when curfews drained the roads and shuttered the shops. Running through deserted streets, the sun still in the sky, alert for signs of gathering trouble.

I pass shop displays from another time. ‘Make Mother’s Day!’ ‘Easter Eggstravaganza!’ ‘New Spring Collection!’ The daffodils have passed. Cherry blossom gathers in drifts. We’re in the season of bluebells, irises, tulips, beds brimming with pansies, yellow pools of primula gather on the meadows.

The laminated signs for plays, concerts, lectures, and exhibitions all long cancelled have been stripped from the railings.

The language of cancellation hangs in every window and doorway. Due to unforeseen circumstances. For reasons beyond our control. Following government advice. As a result of the coronavirus. Because of covid-19. Signs written before the house style was established: covid-19 or Covid-19 or COVID-19? Hyphen or no? Close up or space? Coronavirus or corona virus? Crisis or situation? The occasional sign of hope – we look forward to welcoming you back – or defiance – back stronger! – from businesses that must now be looking grimly at their future.

Maybe it’s like Sundays thirty years ago. The roads quiet, the shops shut, nothing new or good on TV, and the bright promise of a summer yet to arrive. Supermarkets and pharmacies open limited hours. People queue to enter same (except socially distanced) as the rare Sunday in the lead-up to Christmas when the Southbourne branch of Gateways would open for a fleeting few hours. But it’s a Narnian Sunday and Monday never arrives. A month of Sundays. At least seven weeks of Sundays.

Maybe it’s the same, except for the lingering existential dread. The way the papers, the radio, the internet shimmers with statistics: the number infected, the number dead, the exponential explosion of exponential graphs. The way it infects every conversation, every email, text, WhatsApp. The way it seems glib and facile to talk or think of anything else. And who’d have thought that lingering existential dread could be so dull?

But to throw up one’s hands and declare the month just passed – the at-least-three weeks to come – as dull is glib and facile. People are dying. Relatives of people I know have died. To be bored is a relative luxury. The word ‘dull’ is written from a position of good fortune. When the crisis was first discussed, the surge in patients needing critical care was described as a wave. The first wave. The coronavirus as a tsunami, then, sucking out the water and exposing the sea bed ahead of a devastating surge, revealing as rock pools and fish slapping against sands the inequalities in society. Bored, but grateful. Horrified, but impotent.

Maybe this will be the summer of baking and jigsaws, Skype and Zoom and Houseparty and Teams and Hangouts, of memes and podcasts and boxsets, of banging pots and pans at 8pm every Thursday, and of a few crackpots setting fire to 5G masts.

And maybe that’s okay if this crisis results in a consensus of what to do about the flaws and fault-lines it has exposed.

And if, when this is over, the water floods back in to conceal what was once exposed, and through muscle memory or inertia or indifference we return to normal, what then? How will we describe what it was really like to live through these strange times?

Now more than ever, it’s vital to notice. To observe. To bear witness. We’re all Melmoth now.

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