Marcus Chester, Marcus Chester runner, The Happy Teacher Podcast

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.



Marcus Chester, Marcus Chester runner, Sheds, books, review

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.