We Are All Made Of Molecules – or a hot seven miles

Just in front of my house lies the start of one of my favourite runs.  By taking the path that lies at the southern edge of the estate where we live it is easy for the off-road runner to pick up the trails that lead down through Moses Gate and beyond.  This afternoon I did just that.  Picking up the old canal, now completely filled in with vegetation and the passing of time, I made my way down to Bolton Canal and out towards Radcliffe.

I really should have waited.

It’s been very warm today, and running at 4:45PM rather than, say, 8PM was a mistake that I felt within the first mile.  Unusually, I was sweating so profusely that my eyes were stinging and my top felt heavy and uncomfortable.  But hey…we are all made of molecules and mine were doing what they should – leaving me rapidly.

It’s not the first time that the title of Susin Nielsen’s young adult novel has been brought to the front of my mind.  It’s bugged me ever since I read it a few week ago.  It centres around two narrators.  Stewart is ‘geeky, gifted but socially clueless’, while Ashley is ‘cool, popular but her grades stink’.  They are forced together because his dad and her mum have decided to live together.  Stewart still grieves the loss of his mum; Ashley is still annoyed at her dad for being gay.  Within the first few pages Stewart (like many a male narrator since The Curious Incident…) is mapping out his world in diagrams and with a mathematical lexis that, well, doesn’t quite add up.  Ashley is even less sympathetic and wants to become ‘unconstipated.  Wait.  That’s not right.  I keep having to look it up.  I mean emancipated.’  Her lack of precision, or even correctness with words, is not only annoying, it serves little purpose other than to reenforce the stereotype that girls can’t ever be seen as being bright, or if they are then they are definitely devoid of personality.

Like my run, I struggled to the end of the novel.  It raises some serious issues and then almost serenely passes over them as the plot moves on.  Whether this is because Nielsen’s perception of youngsters is that they don’t have the attention span for depth, or simply because the novel is devoid of any coherent centre to which the molecules of narrative adhere, is not really clear.  What is clear is that, like my run, I was glad when it ended.

 

 

Review: Running, Ronnie O’Sullivan (Orion Books, 2013)

Perhaps Ronnie O’Sullivan’s autobiographical account of how running has anchored his life should be called Meandering.  Running seems too simple, too direct as a title for a book that, at times, descends into a disjointed series of tales about periods of his life that have been dominated by snooker, drinking, smoking, and yes, running.

I came to this book with high expectations.  I’d listened to him on marathon talk a few years back and was intrigued by how he came to run 10K in 34 minutes.  Although I know very little about snooker, I knew enough about O’Sullivan to assume that he must have seriously cleaned his life up to enable him to go from being overweight and drinking alcoholically, to someone who could knock off a 10K so robustly.  Perhaps that was wishful thinking on my part; perhaps part of my disappointment with Running is the fact that I like tales of redemption, of clearing out the wreckage of the past, and of starting afresh; this autobiography seems a tad reluctant to go beyond the acknowledging of his character flaws into a more considered and mature narrative.

However, it must be said that there are some elements of maturity within the book. O’Sullivan describes periods of his life in which he seems to want to devote his entire time and energy to running.  But there is such a lack of detail of either the physical or emotional journey that this entails that the reader is left feeling a little short changed.  There is no significant insight into how he achieves such periods of stability.  He drops a few names (the sports psychologist Professor Steve Peters is one of them) and he mentions some of the detail of how he accomplished rare periods of calm, but the issue with the book is that it not exactly meticulously or even solidly outlined.  In this respect the book lurches from one period where he seems to have it all together…to another in which he quiet clearly hasn’t.  The result is an addiction narrative with, ironically,  a lack of substance.  It’s neither a book about running, or snooker, or drugs, or life, or insight, or psychology…despite touching on all of these topics at various stages it simply meanders along.  But, and this is important, it does capture something authentic of O’Sullivan’s mindset as both he and the narrative lurch from episode to episode.  Maybe the book is masterful in the way that it’s disjointed; perhaps it’s a transparent depiction of O’Sullivan’s uneven way of understanding the world.  Perhaps.

That’s not to say the book is without strengths either.  I completely admire the honesty with which he lays bare his demons as he talks about the psychological difficulties that he still encounters.  The only way in which mental health issues are ever going to be treated with the same respect as physical difficulties is through such openness and honesty.  In this respect the autobiography succeeds as it depicts O’Sullivan as arrogant as he is frail; as masterful on the table as he is feeble; as professional as he is flawed.  It reads like a chat with a likeable human; rounded yet throughly imperfect.  It’s overwhelmingly clear how much he benefits from the cleansing discipline that running brings to his life.  I hope he continues to run more than he drinks.

A Shed of One’s Own

I recently read Marcus Berkmann’s  A Shed Of One’s Own.   I’ve always liked titles like this ever since I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own some 20-odd years ago.  As a literature student I developed an enduring fascination with the concept of rooms as metaphors for containment and restriction.   It really has stayed with me.  Indeed, a few years ago I taught E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View to an A-level group and found myself once again captivated by literature which uses the conceit of rooms.  There is something immediately understandable about the fact that rooms can speak to our common understanding of, and need for, inclusion.

Of course, as a runner, I spend much time outside of rooms, outside of buildings.  I often find myself looking back into them as I shuffle past.  I’m often not conscious of my doing so; but when I am I love seeing the little vignettes of domesticity that always appear to be caught in a freeze-frame.  Of course,  I am grateful for the freedom that running offers.  But, I can’t help thinking as I run that such freedom is only meaningful once I’m back inside my home.  Running is as much about the return to a warm home and my family as it is about escape.

Sheds are a different matter.  I’ve been only been vaguely interested in these since I bought and built one of my own a couple of summers ago.  I found the whole process an enjoyable way to spend a few sunny August days.  Largely though, my shed has served a literal purpose.  I’ve not, in the pursuit of metaphor, been able to push the shed into the service of anything other than storage for the lawnmower and various bikes. 

So, it was with some surprise that I read Berkmann’s argument that ‘a shed of one’s own’ could also be understood as an internal shed: a sort of psychological space which is a defence against the havoc that middle age may bring.  So far, so good.  But I also stumbled upon a small paragraph in which sits the idea that marathon running can be likened to having a shed of one’s own.  Here the running-as-a-metaphor-for-a-shed-as-a-metaphor-for-having-one’s-own-internal-space actually works.  Weirdly. 

Marathon running is the construction that you erect around yourself in order to exclude yourself from one world (the sofa; the bad food; the rust of middle age) while allowing one to embrace the possibilities of another (the open road; the better choice).  Marathon running might not always exude the same comfort level that the idealised Berkmann shed offers; but, like the garden shed, it is always there: unassuming, tucked in the corner.  There might not be anywhere to keep the spades in your marathon shed.  But improved quality of life?  You’ll have that in bucket loads.

Review: High Rise, JG Ballard (Jonathan Cape, 1975)

Ballad’s dystopian wonder opens with one of the most arresting lines in 20th century prose fiction.

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

This is not simply premonition of the dog eat dog world of 80s Thatcherism; it’s a man eat dog world, with a hint of cannibalism too.

The high rise of the novel’s title was inspired by the brutalist masterpiece that is Balfron Tower in East London.  As inspirational as the building may have been, an inspiring living environment it wasn’t.  Famously the architect Erno Goldfinger lived for a short while in the penthouse apartment before moving back to a more comfortable home in Hampstead.  In the novel, Goldfinger becomes the throughly sinister figure of Royal and, of course, in the Bond novel of the same name an arch (the arch?) Bond villain.

But this is not simply a novel with a high rise back drop.  This is a novel of disintegration. The two thousand strong community, what Ballard called a ‘vertical city’, psychotically retreats from the outside world and turns their frustrations towards each other. The building becomes an enabler.  The solidity of it preventing any sense of connection between the neighbours.  Indeed, the inhabitants’ lives become fractured and distorted and they decend into tribal warfare replete with body markings and savage intent.  Any humour is quickly replaced by the tacit awareness that we are peaking into a Freudian landscape, and at times the novel becomes completely uncomfortable to read.

It’s a gripping tale.

Review: Chavs. The Demonisation of the Working Class, Owen Jones (Verso, 2012)

Whatever the uncertainty surrounding the derivation of the word ‘chav’, there can be little doubt as to the intention with which it is used to signify the feckless: to be a chav is to be a part of the tracksuit wearing, pasty chomping, benefit claiming, and economically inactive underclass.

It is to this caricature that Jones turns his gaze throughout his first book.  It’s packed with useful references which are often deftly drawn to outline the political and economic structures that are deployed to maintain the status quo.  There are plenty of occasions when anyone with the faintest understanding of the ways in which social inequality has blighted this far from united kingdom will find themselves nodding vigorously.  As Jones excavates the orthodoxy which allows commentators and politicians alike to direct scorn and contempt towards those ‘too thick’ to help themselves it’s hard to see any of the flaws in his argument.  It’s both an angry book and a well-argued tract.  Who’d want to disagree with him ‘as a government of millionaires led by an Old Etonian prepares to further demolish the living standards of millions of working class people, the time has rarely been so ripe for a new wave of class politics.’  Certainly not me.

The problem with it (and I really don’t want there to be one) is that it tends to either romanticise the working class or treat them simply as passive victims of circumstance.  It is this tendency towards homogenisation that irks slightly and at times Jones’ arguments become a little too selective.  Indeed, the conflation of the term ‘chav’ with ‘working class’ is highly problematic (linguistically and economically).  He takes aim at Little Britain to point out that the character Vicky Pollard is ‘grotesque’ but he fails to state the obvious: all of the characters in Little Britain are ‘grotesque’.  It’s such nuances that are sometimes lost throughout the book.  The implication of the criticism of Walliams and Lucas is that class discrimination is simply a one way process.  There’s little discussion of the experience of inverse snobbery that motivates the poetry of, say, Tony Harrison.  To do so would be to admit some of the problems that are inherent when writing from a left of centre position: the working class are always understood as being the oppressed victims – a position as reductive and caricatured as the one he is arguing against.

It is a good book though.  We need more passion, more indignation, and greater fairness.  This book certainly contributes towards such a worthwhile project and it deserves to be widely read.

Review: Running on Empty, Marshall Ulrich (Avery, 2011)

There is a line in Marshall Ulrich’s book in which he, unflatteringly, describes himself as a tank. Or rather he admits to having a tank-like build. You don’t really expect this as ultrarunners are famed for their svelte, slight builds and their often quiet, introspective manner. This book is neither of these things.

Like the monumentally epic challenge that Ulrich describes, the narrative is forceful and brash. He is brutally honest throughout about his shortcomings and he admits to the painful compromises that he has had to make along the way to becoming one of the most respected ultrarunners ever. But here, in Running on Empty, such honesty does not really translate into a narrative of psychological interest. This is a shame. I am far more interested in his thoughts rather than the food that he ate along the way. Although I have nothing but admiration for his attitude and guts, the prose did leave me a little empty.

Review: Of Mice and Me, Mishka Shubaly (Kindle Single, 2015)

Like Steinbeck’s fictional masterpiece, Shubaly’s short non-fiction memoir opens with the protagonist foraging through the brush. But there the similarity ends. Shubaly is no Lennie, or George for that matter. And the mouse that he metaphorically pockets becomes a symbol of hope rather than an impending death.

There’s not a word out of place in this beautiful tale of possibility and hope. There’s redemption of a sorts too. It’s the redemption that Shubaly is oftentimes reluctant to grant himself: for his repeatedly articulated story is that of a bruised recovering alcoholic, too messed up by a barely remembered past to be fully at ease with himself. But here, in his sixth Kindle Single, there is an evident maturity that is well hidden behind literary conceits in his previous work. It’s a little too obvious to state that this is a tale of growing up, of interrogating whether he’d make a good father, and, naturally, of excavating some of the tricky relationship with his own dad. Too obvious, but also true. That’s the overarching theme of this episode from Shubaly’s life. Truth and how to reconcile that with the past, and with one’s own fears for the future. It reads as an inward glancing dialogue of man who is coming to terms with the fact that he might be ok as a human after all. It’s not the neatly packaged and sanitised version of what it means to be ok, to be `fine’. Shubaly’s skill lies in the ways in which he can make the banalities of life speak to the possibilities of the future. The ending of the Single speaks to that notion. But, in many ways, there’s no real conclusion here. It’s not about the question of if he’d make a good dad. It’s more of a way of acknowledging the fact that the question of whether to have children should and must be answered on its own terms. Along the way it would seem that he is starting to learn that it’s ok to be ok. It’s fine to be fine. “Of Mice and Me” is both of those and much, much more.

Review: Why We Run, Robin Harvie (John Murray, 2011)

Obsessive’s accounts of their exploits often make for interesting reading: Ranulph Fiennes’ DIY fingertip removal springs to mind. But, as vivid and as interesting as such accounts often are, they also leave the reader with the nagging doubt that what they have just read is indeed the narrative of the unhinged loner, caught in the terrible circumstances that they have invited into their lives in order to find out who they really are. Harvie’s book acknowledges this from the outset. His is a story of obsession and although he claims to rationally explain `why we run’, there is, like the fingertip removal, something much more interesting going on: less obviously dramatic, but much more considered.

His account of his ultra-running reads more like an exploration into what is possible, an exploration into the frequently untapped vault of human potential. It is less about why we run and more about who we might become.

Harvie’s book then is, like his training for the arduous Spartathlon, a personal journey, which at times, like running, transcends its surroundings and takes on an almost spiritual dimension. Consequently, the sublime pushes through his magnificent prose with startling frequency. Naturally, at times, he struggles to answer why we run. To do so would involve an objective stepping away from the simplicity of the activity. You’d think this would be easy. After all, running, by his own admission is not a special skill that only the privileged few can enjoy. But, step away he must in order to answer this self-imposed question. In some ways he does manage this. The book describes the regression of his social life and friends; it outlines the way in which running encroaches on his personal life and in some beautiful passages he acknowledges a deceit: that he may be using a very personal grief to motivate his efforts.

And then, of course, there are occasions when he is not really able to objectively step away from his running: his really is a story of obsession. In doing so he references many writers in a textual journey through literature that concerns itself with the obsessive pursuit of who we really are. This literary pursuit could be contrived: a lesser writer would claw through such intertextuality without regard. It would be easy to see glib cliché trod underfoot, as it were. But here, in Why We Run, the flow of the narrative (it is no coincidence that the Thames is a ubiquitous presence in the book) is so beautifully managed that, like long distance running itself, you find yourself wandering, transported, left to return back home a different person. It is why we read.

So Harvie’s is a book about the most agonising of pains, and a book that affirms all that is good about running with each turn of the page. Between these two perspectives lies a narrative that is as engaging as it is well-written and a narrator as eloquent as he is obsessed. It is a remarkable book.

Review: Finding Ultra, Rich Roll (Crown Archetype, 2012)

From the outset, I knew that I would be hooked. This was going to be one of those books about recovery from alcoholism and running that simply did it for me. It was not just the clearly written prose and the enjoyable pace with which it clipped along. There was something very ordinary and honest about the narrative of spiralling addiction that had me reading feverishly from the opening lines.

Chapter one is where it starts to get juicy. Quite literally. Here, Roll describes his junk food addiction as something that he believed he was entitled to after successfully quitting alcohol during a programme some years before. He had been a promising college swimmer, but he also found himself plagued by another obsession: alcohol. He describes the havoc that this caused in his personal and then post-college professional life; he documents with honesty the distress it caused his family and friends. What is interesting is the honesty with which the obsessive thinking of the alcoholic is laid bare. There is no pity, no clichéd set pieces; just the solemn dawning that things could not continue in the way that they were. He had to change. And although with support Roll managed to leave alcohol behind, he soon found himself on a diet that was just as surely slowly killing him: high in fat and high in salt. His sodium levels soared along with his expanding waistline. On the eve of his fortieth birthday he decided that he needed to change. He needed to find his ultra.

And change he did. From a lifestyle that was slowly killing him, through the miasma of middle age, junk food, TV, and nicotine gum, came a new obsession: one for health and a positive way of living. And central to that was his wife’s passion for fruit and vegetables, raw, cooked, steamed and juiced.

Roll describes his reluctance to think of himself as remotely ‘hippy’ or ‘alternative’.

He also describes the torment of being caught in the alcoholic’s frame of mind: if I do this, I’ll need more.

So not content with going on a diet, Roll used the night before his 40th birthday as the motivation needed to change. Detox because veganism, and energised as he was, he realised that he needed more challenge, more life, more rejection of middle age. Not content with running a marathon or even an Ironman, Roll persuaded the organiser of what seems like an impossible event to give him a place: five full iron-distance triathlons on consecutive days.

Like the Epic-5 event, this is a book of different stages. The second half of the book moves away from his clearly written prose about his early years: college, swimming, junk food and alcohol and moves into some vivid descriptions of suffering and recovery. There is no doubting Roll’s sincerity and enthusiasm for a new way of life. California offers the landscape and the sea, the space and the climate to embrace the outdoors. It’s all too easy, in the wet and windy north west of England to dismiss the narrative as that of yet another middle class hipster transforming himself through a landscape where, to quote Ferlinghetti ‘anything is possible’. But unlike Ferlinghetti’s poem there is no cynicism here. Like some other California based ultra-distance athletes it is hard not to be swept away by the conviction of his arguments and the fluidity of his prose. I am not yet a convert to veganism, but I am converted to Roll’s passion for not accepting your lot as you approach the turning point of the middle decade. This book will leave you wondering what is possible. Roll’s gift, is of course, to give it away in order that he might keep it. Thoroughly recommended.