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.




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.

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: The Way of the Runner, Adhanarand Finn (Faber and Faber, 2015)

I came to The Way of the Runner really wanting to gain an insight into the world of Japanese ekiden.  I’d heard Adharanand Finn taking about the depth of Japanese running on the brilliant Marathon Talk podcast.  He seemed sold on the idea that there was something unique about the ways in which the Japanese trained that helped to account for their undoubted depth, particularly in the marathon and half marathon distances.

In this respect the book failed.  The text offers nothing beyond some bland statements about the fact that high school and university coaches can be incredibly tough; that runners train hard at a relatively young age (and subsequently burn out);  and that it is possible to earn a decent living from running even at a sub-national level.

The main issue is the fact that we never really get to know any of the runners that pop in and out of the narrative.  Whether it’s the language barrier or the reserve that many of the coaches have for a foreign journalist is not particularly salient.  What is evident is the fact that we don’t journey into the psyche of any of the runners.  We are none the wiser about what makes them capable of running such good times in such large numbers.  This is the real shame. Finn is, undoubtedly, a good writer.  He is capable of evoking the ennui of an overland train journey, and at times he movingly captures the essence of what running means to him.  He would have been onto something much more captivating if he’d been able to gain any significant insight into the psychology of the Japanese runners. He is a natural storyteller, but he’s stuck with a narrative that refuses to be told in any meaningful depth.

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.