Good and Bad at Games

Me….
…and my girl

‘You are the me/I wanted to be’

When my daughter turned 21, a couple of years ago, I wrote her a poem that ended thus. A bit soppy, perhaps? Isn’t that the reason we have children, though, to try to nurture a better version of ourselves? Not live vicariously through them of course. I don’t mean I poke my nose into her life. She’s an independent, confident, multilingual globetrotter, who has her own secrets and is probably filled with all the faults I had, at that age (to misquote Larkin). I just hope I didn’t fuck her up.

I took both these pictures on the same weekend, a couple of weeks ago. On the Saturday I volunteered at parkrun to ensure fresh legs for the following day’s Vitality Big Half (see Blogs passim), which is a favourite half marathon and, incidentally, the last one I ran before Lockdown The First.

My daughter loves a parkrun, and in the picture above she’s holding her own as fourth woman. It gave me such joy to watch her fly around the course with evident enjoyment. She’s a sporty girl, and no mistake.

It gladdens my heart that she’s a regular, and pretty dedicated runner, since it was I, along with my Kent AC club mate and friend, Sheryl Clark, who encouraged her to come to the track and join Sheryl’s newly formed run club for girls when she was 11.

Dr Sheryl Clark, as I of course address her while we toil up the several hills of Lewisham on our Sunday runs, is a researcher and lecturer in the field of educational studies at Goldsmiths University, with particular interests in gender, sport, identities, youth, schooling and girlhood, all of which is covered with rigorous academic precision in this:

In which she identifies the concept of ‘successful girlhood’ and expectations of high achievement that so often surrounds the image of sporty girls, as well as the reasons for non-participation after the transition to secondary schools, the issues of self esteem, the peculiarly gendered attitudes towards fitness, healthy eating and competition.

This is particularly interesting reading for me, as Sheryl and I coached the girls group all those years ago and observed, at grass roots level, how the young athletes responded to the Tuesday night sessions at the track.

My daughter was facing her own demons at this time, which cannot be documented here, but she came through with her love of running undiminished.

Thinking about Sheryl’s book reminded me of Jack Gold’s 1983 Film on Four, Good and Bad At Games, in which Anton Lesser plays a horribly bullied lad in a public school, who manages to exact his revenge a decade later by manipulating the nice-but-dim erstwhile sports star. Cartoonish in its depiction of an entitled, horny and deeply unpleasant group of posh sixth-formers, it also explores the fact that kudos on the playing fields does not confer greater privilege in a later life stymied by the class system. The handsome sports jock, nicknamed ‘Wog’ because he’s a bit foreign, is as outcast as the skinny weakling despised for being the runt of the school litter, when it comes to the narrow corridors of power in The City, The Officer Class, The Westminster Village, or any other Old Boys’ network.

Looking at the current Cabinet, led by our jolly Old Etonian/Oxford Bullingdon Club japester, it would appear that very little has changed since the early 1980s.

So sportiness seems to carry some glamour in the early years, when fitting in at primary school and finding your tribe, and this carries over, for boys more than girls, into secondary school. Issues of privacy, body image, competition and friendship groups seem to mean that schoolgirls drop off the sporting track earlier than schoolboys. In adult life comes a sense that there’s a moral obligation to move your body most people would agree that taking a little exercise, particularly outdoors, helps to ease your body and mind.

There are many who are happy to sit it out and swear that exercise does them more harm than good (they’re often the ones who become fixated on your knees when they hear you’re a runner), but most people you meet these days enjoy a walk, a swim, a run, a dance or a cycle, they’re just not as obsessed as I am about the need to achieve.

This has been brought home to me on many occasions. Even among the parkrun community, when I feverishly scan the results table to see if another V55 got ahead of me, or despair to my running mates that my time is shaming me once again, other parkrunners look mystified and ask why it’s so important. They just do it for the craic, and just getting put there on a Saturday morning is enough. Why, sometimes they just walk it.

Then there was the time when a non-runner friend was telling me all about her colleague, who had recently participated in the London Marathon. When I asked what time this woman had run, my friend said, vaguely, ‘oh, about 5 hours or something’. And the little runner demon in my head immediately placed her in the slightly disparaging Keen Jogger category. When I met this jogger, and she informed me she’d managed her first-ever sub three-hour marathon, I practically genuflected and felt the need to apologise for a miscategorisation about which she neither knew or cared. Earning her place in the hallowed Sub Three kingdom did not affect her work, her relationships with others, in any way. Of course it doesn’t. She was deliriously happy when she reached the finish line, and revelled in the admiration of her running club, then went about her life (slightly bowlegged and avoiding stairs for a couple of days) thereafter.

I’m on a hiding to nothing if I think running good times for my age makes me any cooler or more interesting than the next middle-aged woman. But if it makes me happy I should carry on. If failing to meet my self-assigned targets makes me miserable, I need to think on.

And if I handed on that capacity for misery to my daughter, that would be the very worst fault to fill her with. I only ever wanted her to be better than me, and she achieved that years ago.

Red faces all round

Not so blue

All I want is a barrel of you’

Buster Bloodvessel

All this week the creatives have been stepping up to honour Joni Mitchell, and most particularly her studio album, Blue. Fifty years old and still ripping our hearts out, this outstanding song collection has a particular resonance. Like many people of my vintage, I like these songs very much. Unlike them, however, I never listened to them in my youth.

It’s a bit pathetic to admit this, but I can’t help thinking that my ignorance of Ms Mitchell and her prodigious talent during my formative years is another indication of my shortcomings. Perhaps if I had been listening to Joni’s ‘unresolved emotionality’  and learning to strum her chords while penning my own verses I’d be a different person now. I might even have a small volume of poetry, or a heartwarming work of creative genius, in my locker.

While the novelists, poets and songwriters queued up to pay tribute to Blue with eloquent and poignant reminiscences of passionate youthful affairs, citing Joni’s part in their subsequent glittering careers, they chose their favourite tracks from the album. And you can’t have a celebration of Blue without wondering at this intoxicating conceit:

 ‘I. Could drink. A case of you…and still be on my feet, I would still be on my feet.’

However I cannot sing those bittersweet lines without triggering memories of a rather less edifying version of the same idea:

‘I want more, give me more, all I want is a barrel of you,’ as warbled by the inimitable Buster Bloodvessel (aka Douglas Trendle), front man of Bad Manners. It is on a cassette tape from the days when my friend Mary and I used to take it in turns to record the Radio 1 chart show on a Sunday evening, create a new cardboard insert of the tape box with crayons and gift them to each other.

Somehow this descent into a barrel of Special Brew instead of sticking with Joni’s refined vintage speaks volumes about my inner artist. It is the very definition of bathos, with Joni and her real followers being the sublime, and Buster and me stuck with ridiculous.

Aside from beating myself up over my lowbrow musical heritage, I’ve been taking the high road this month. To celebrate the end of her finals, my daughter and I went for a very long cycle ride, with camping, in the Peak District. We met in Sheffield, where I’d been a university student in the 1980s. It is a very changed city, but still a hilly one. We spent two nights in our little tents, brewing tea in my Kelly kettle and eating quantities of peanut butter and chocolate. We wrote down our private thoughts in our little notebooks as the sun set over the White Peak landscape. I suppose most parents look at their offspring and see a better version of the young adult they once were. I can bet that my accomplished daughter’s poetry is untroubled by Bad Manners or the 21st century equivalent. Meeting her in the city where I had been an undergraduate drove home both the distance between us, and the flashes of young Ronnie I see in her mannerisms and preoccupations. And the peanut butter addiction is clearly in the genes, along with the uncooperative thick, red hair.

The languishing, unseasonably cold and wet May was seen off by a flaming June, and a combination of restlessness, continuing injury and a huge surge of carpe diem catapulted me into indulging in a series of minibreaks. Nothing involving passports and health spas, of course – I’m a gran on a budget – but still hugely enjoyable. There was a trip to the seaside to house-sit for a sister, then a train ride to Cromer with the old man to celebrate his birthday and our 32nd wedding anniversary. We had our customary row over a rather heavy pub dinner and chose not to speak to each other for the ensuing 18 hours, but at least I had a great book to read and my little navel-gazing notebook to record all his failings. Notebook nearly finished now.

After that, there was the Peak District, where the hill climbs on my pannier-laden Felicity Kendall bike nearly sent me into cardiac arrest. And I don’t think the resulting arse ache will earn me rear of the year., unlike Ms Kendall.

My final minibreak was that trip to Lincolnshire I was planning last post, with my running buddy to visit another mutual running buddy, late of this parish and still a pretty fleet veteran athlete for our club, Kent AC. She had a ten-mile race on the day we left, and let us know later she won her age-group and was third woman overall. Be still my inner green-eyed monster.

Nine weeks without running has left me with Buster Bloodvessel levels of fitness, but I am finally back training again. So it is with some creativity and the wisdom of a chagrined gran that I return to a training programme of my own device. My stated aim is to nail that perfect distance: the 5k. There is no reason I cannot come within a minute of the time I managed in the summer of 2015. I will never surpass it, but it floats there in my sights. I will rise. I have a new notebook.

 

May I draw your attention to the bike on the right?

The opposite of flourishing

By Blackheath pond, the mother goose fiercely protects her ailing baby; all I could do was watch in pity

Is languishing. It’s what we’re all doing right now, according to big think pieces in the New York Times and little comedy pieces in The Guardian. Languishing is what we do when we sit in neutral nothingness, not really engaging with the world (mostly because it’s not allowed to engage with us). We’ve been locked down and shut out of the habit of making plans or looking forward to things because of the frequent and crushing disappointments meted out by the Big C-19. We’ve been working from home and growing stodgy and dull from too much Deliveroo and Netflix. We’re sick of the sight of our own homes, gardens, parks and streets. Too many shops and businesses remain shuttered despite the gradual relaxing of the rules in April. A chill north wind is compromising our enjoyment of beer gardens. If we can be bothered to go through the rigmarole of booking our hail-lashed table in one.  

Languishing is, in fact, a sociological term, coined by American academic Corey Keyes in 2002. As a result of this halfway-house identification of a mood between content and despair, he’s having a moment, which is more than can be said for the rest of us. He’s keen to distinguish the feeling of languish to that of anguish. It’s not depression, it’s just, as the Grauniad so zetgeistily puts it, ‘Meh’ Everything is kind of Meh coloured, which I imagine as a kind of taupe.

How can anyone feel depressed, if they’re not suffering from Long Covid, or any other life-threatening disease? If the Government has ensured their furlough and self-employed grants so they can pay their bills? If they can stand in gardens and take refreshment with their nearest and dearest and they can cheer while politicians make encouraging noises about world-beating vaccine programmes and the likelihood that holidays, at home and abroad, can happen this summer?

That’s how I upbraid my pathetic self when I limp home from another abortive run to find that last night’s gusty wind has blown three disposable face masks into the front garden, where they dangle unpleasantly in the shrubbery. It’s the self-loathing also lurking behind the rush of relief I feel when I learn that my marathon has once again been postponed (postponement the third takes it to September, which is where it started last year…). It’s the wan smile (behind the mask) I exchange with the osteopath when I rock up for yet another session with my latest running injury. Groin strain! Truly a pain in the arse. And other areas.

It has been two long weeks since I’ve been able to follow my comforting little training timetable, to enjoy sprinting efforts on the track and jog the recoveries feeling pleased with Marathon Gran’s return to speed. Therefore I am languishing in a defiantly self-indulgent way and repairing to bed as soon as darkness falls so that I don’t have to endure my own company for too long. A pile of books sit invitingly by the bed, the most delightful being the one my sister sent me, On Chapel Sands, by Laura Cumming, whose writing is so extraordinarily textured, conjuring the bracing Lincolnshire coastline with such a painterly, energetic curiosity that I am intrigued, for a while, out of my despondency. Her writing is interspersed with memoirs from her mother, an artist with the same bright way with words as her daughter. It’s an absolute joy and it provides me with the ‘flow’ that the psychiatrists recommend us languishers escape our taupe coloured world with. Flow is when you’re really absorbed in a task of activity and you lose your sense of self and stop focusing on the trivial shit, such as whether it’s time to put the kettle on and open that pack of Tesco dark chocolate digestives that you discovered were quietly vegan and cost only 69p.

Flow can also be achieved if you’re running well. It’s not exactly absorption because your thoughts range far and wide, and you may actually be airing them if you’re running with intelligent friends and there are a few miles to be covered. Running alone, you think up interesting stories and truly believe you will act on your ideas once you’re home.

Bad news hits like a hammer blow and suddenly the world looks fragile and ill. Languishing is what happens after the initial shock and tears. Then all you can do is your best and hope for the best to happen. Maybe the little gosling in the picture recovered and went for a swim with her devoted mum. The mother goose’s fierce protection of her baby was the comfort I drew from this afternoon.

Bleeding liberty

‘…raindrops on black twigs in March’ (Stevie Smith)

It’ll be obvious by now that I don’t have much to boast about, as my lumbering social media presence would attest. However, there’s one activity I indulge in every four months or so that earns me bragging rights (and boy! Have I exercised those rights…) I give blood. My haemoglobinous ambition is to reach the 100-donation mark, as I believe my father did, although I’m looking at his badge as I work at his desk, and can’t see there’s a donation count on it.

It’s not uncommon for me to drop into my brag the fact that my blood is of the rare variety: B-. It’s a sign of insecurity to keep listing reasons why one stands out from the herd. Mea culpa. In the absence of any real achievements, I trot out such distinguishing features and fear that as my age-graded invisibility cloak wraps itself around me, this habit will become increasingly desperate.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, then, and, as any out-of-borough trip is an excitement in these restricted times, my date with NHS Blood and Donation loomed large in the diary. As usual, I’d chosen a donation venue I’d never visited before, to make it all the more exciting. This time the session was at the William Booth College for Salvation Army training, a building I’d always wanted to see inside. Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, of red telephone box fame, the building’s red-brick, boxy memorial to William Booth dominates from its airy position overlooking Denmark Hill station in Camberwell. Luckily the bike ride back was perfect for this newly depleted donor, freewheeling more or less all the way home.

Most exciting of all, however, was the experience being indoors, but not at home, chatting to people I didn’t know, surrounded by more people sitting around relaxing. How long since I did that? Vaccination day at the end of January felt like a similar party. Granted, we’re all masked up, and there’s not much opportunity to hang around after you’ve had your drink and snack (I spun that out by plumping for the slow-eating popcorn option, in order to squeeze every drop of social interaction out of the experience; then, joy! I saw a man I knew from parkrun so was able to chat a little bit more). It was like being let off the leash. I was quite giddy with good cheer by the time I’d cycled back.

This week’s donation has, as usual, put paid to any real running achievements, so it’s all about jogging expeditions to keep my run streak going, more sleep, more eating and mood management as the end of the current Covid-19 lockdown draws near. The daffodils are all out, the weather is milder, walks and runs are less muddy, but there’s tension in the air. Next week there’ll be an announcement about licensed sports events (as I write this, the Cheltenham Racing Festival is on its first day of behind-closed-doors race meets, a year after being named and shamed as a ‘super-spreader’, when the festival organisers decided to go ahead with the event and let thousands of spectators in to jump up and down and shout in each others faces as their horses pounded past). Back then, most of us hoped the whole herd-immunity thing would turn Covid 19 into a nasty cold picked up while out shopping, down the pub or standing in unsuitable clothing watching throughbreds gallop….until shops, pubs and sports venues were summarily slammed shut.

We know so much better now, don’t we? Boris Johnson continues to tussle with his desire to be both Good Old Bozzer (a right tosser) and Captain Dates Not Rates Sensible, and now all the hospitality venues, hairdressers, gyms and non-essential retailers are in danger of a massive punch-up about whose business is getting the most favourable treatment in the run-up to unlock. Schools opened up on 8 March, and already whole classes being sent home to self-isolate following positive Covid tests. If the next stage of unlock (29 March) is contingent on the first stage being successful, it’s looking a little dodgy from this angle.

Rates not dates, but I continue to measure out my life in small, domestic pleasures and fill the desk diary with idiotically ambitious to do lists.

R asked me if there’s anything I would feel disappointed not to have done in these weeks of under-employment, given I have the time to write my radio play (stuck), improve my German (zum Stillstand gebracht, jede Nacht, trotzdem der Duolingo), yoga (still don’t trust myself with The Crow). I responded with a testy ‘How long have you got?’

I know I’m frittering. We all do. Lack of motivation, despite hours of spare time has felled many of my friends, apart from those who work as carers or for the NHS. So, if I can crow about letting my blood flow freely for the NHS while I consider how my life is spent, indulge me. It’s too galling to admit that, otherwise, I’m bleeding useless.

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Tenpole Tudor

I have no idea why, but I got lucky in the vaccine postcode lottery

“Hear their shouts, hear their roar

They’ve probably all had a barrel or much, much more….”

Edward Tudor-Pole

The rousing 1981 masterpiece Swords of a Thousand Men has been my earworm this past couple of weeks, as I once again escape to the pox-ridden sixteenth century in my spare time. I still haven’t found bedtime reading to equal Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, but my training took on a distinctly Tudor flavour this past fortnight, courtesy of another eccentric virtual running challenge thrown down by my hyperactive millennial boss at Secret London Runs (it’s a bit complicated to try to explain, but more here).

In short, I had to cover the 99 miles Catherine of Aragon travelled after her dismissal by Henry VIII, in two weeks. My Garmin, through Bluetooth and GPS sorcery, told SLR admin that I achieved that (in Lewisham – roads much travelled). So it’s all good.

How I loved Eddie Tudor-Pole; his attractively cadaverous form draped in leather jacket with added sagging puffling pants (as Ben Elton memorably termed galley-hose breeches), his sharp-cheekboned lean and hungry look, the way he attempted stage leaps, with his gangling stick-insect limbs splaying out of control. He was my ideal bloke, the type I pursued frequently in the early eighties. Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken to endurance running in middle age, to be chasing down spindly men while the shadow of middle-age spread lounges comfortably on the sofa.

I seem to remember Mr Tudor-Pole enjoyed some success in the early noughties as a telly presenter (was it Crystal Maze?) but I didn’t study him much at that point, being otherwise engaged. He’s still with us, I think, although I’m loth to look him up in case he’s some landed Brexity Tory who likes Stilton and port. In my imagination he still slides around the tiny ToTP studio like a hyperactive schoolboy.

Lockdown 3 has afforded plenty of opportunity to relive such former glories via YouTube, or even spin a few LPs on the Dansette, while swerving horrors like the daily Covid news and the tax return. I’ve also taken to reading my favourite picture books to my grandsons via WhatsApp. I did Little Rabbit Foo Foo last week. It’s one of my favourite works of literature. Michael Rosen signed my daughter’s copy many years ago. Living in a fantasy world, where wanton violence is punished by being turned into a Goonie, is the only way forward.

My more demanding fantasy world sees me in the thick of marathon training. The much-postponed Richmond Marathon stills declares a date of 27 March for its carefully Covid-secure rerun, despite ever-more rigorous lockdown, and Kentish and South African variants of the virus alarming the scientific Powers That Be. Still, it’s distractions we need, and there’s nothing like the rigours of a training regime for keeping despair at bay. Galloping through the south London mire while planning all the journeys I shall make to hug friends at family WATIO is what’s keeping me sane at the moment.

As I write this the news is all about the death of Sir Captain Tom Moore. He decided to keep moving, walking round his garden on his frame, aged 99, to raise money for National Health Service charities. He turned 100, having raised £33million and was knighted for his effort. He died of Covid, but his century year was an absolute blast, I’ll wager. I hope his final days were pain free.

Elderly movers and shakers fascinate me, unsurprisingly for a blogger who calls herself Marathon Gran. My current bedtime reading is What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson. The late Olga Kotelko was a star on the athletics track in her nineties. She could jump higher, run faster and throw javelins further than most other seniors, and held 23 world records in track and field. Grierson’s meticulous study of her athletic prowess tries to find a reason for this golden girl’s seemingly ageless body and mind. She agreed to be subjected to a barrage of fitness and intelligence tests, accompanied by Grierson, who turned their adventures into fascinating reading for obsessives like me. Yes, I do harbour fantasies of being a nonagenarian Marathon Great Gran one day.

Until then, I guess I’ll keep on following the elders. The other day I rang the oldest member of our athletics club, Ron, who’s in his mid nineties and has had a nasty bout of Covid, which hospitalised him for a time. He told me he was doing well, and mentioned how bored he was with his daily walks on the same old streets day in day out. He can’t wait to get back to the road less travelled, either.

Lockdown ginger

Pass the smelling salts

Sometimes our best efforts do not go

amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.

The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow

that seemed hard frozen: may it happen to you.

Sheenah Pugh

A Tier 4 Christmas went surprisingly well round here. Daughter managed to come back from Nottingham in time to hear Boris Johnson telling everyone to stay put. I did not order her back to the station. Our bubble person, who lives alone, also joined in. There may or may not have been others.

Everything was simplified, which suits my tree-hugging persona. Presents did not have to be sweated over, if they were bought at all. Wider family received home-made cards; immediate family received an interesting range of stocking fillers from local shops for local people. Walnuts, dates, pomegranates, oils and unguents from Lewisham’s Brazilian, Polish, Sri Lankan and Chinese shops. One of the presents in the sack at the end of my bed was the most enormous branch of ginger from the Turkish food shop round the corner. I am gingering up my life no end.

One of the people I follow on Instagram calls herself Silly Ginger Vegan, which describes me quite accurately. Although I become less ginger as the silver threads outnumber the gold in my lockdown tresses. Am working on becoming less silly.

The roads around Catford are festooned with banners urging us to shop local, which is easy to do in urban areas blessed with numerous small, multicultural  retailers. The other week I interviewed a family that run a wonderful convenience store a few streets from here. They told me how they’d joined the community WhatsApp group in their street, and had helped with foodbanks, deliveries and general neighbourhood support throughout both lockdowns and now, more so, in Tier 4 restrictions. I hope they’re selling plenty from the exciting off-licence bit of their store today, because there’ll be some serious home drinking tonight.

It’s the last day of 2020. Many memes and GIFS on social media are variations on the same theme: good riddance to 2020 and let’s all look forward to 2021. Poor old 2020. It started well. Double parkrun on 1 January 2020, I believe.

It’s pretty obvious the first two months, at least, of 2021 will be no better than anything people endured this past year. So give it a break. No-one performs well when expectations are set too high.

My wishes for 2021 are as follows:

I hope I can follow a decent training schedule as if my 27 March marathon is going ahead (that’s highly unlikely) and I continue to progress in the Marathon Gran Good for Age vein.

I hope that my daughter, completing her fourth year at university, manages her own demanding schedule, stays healthy and in control and fulfils her wish to earn a scholarship to study for an MA in Taiwan.

I hope that in six months or I’ll be able to climb onto the Eurostar and DB trains to Berlin to see my little grandsons.

I hope my middle son is successful in his application to teach in the Ivory Coast.

I hope, overall, that my best efforts turn out to be worth the effort, and I have the strength to do as I mean to.

Fiery ginger is anti-inflammatory. So that’s good.

I am Greta (no, not that one)

Wild woman of the woods

My goodness, my goodness it’s lockdown again

The pubs are all shuttered

 I do not know when

I’ve been so dejected

The theatres all dark

This gloom was expected.

(Apologies to Marchette Chute, the poet behind the original excited-for- Christmas poem) 

Lockdown the second, everyone agrees, is not as novel an experience as the original. In some ways it’s less arduous: parents of young children are relieved that the schools remain open; no-one’s stockpiling lavatory paper and dried pasta.  On the whole though, this sequel is a pale imitation: greyer, colder, wetter, more polluted (those deserted streets are just a memory), no blossom or full-throated dawn choruses. Single magpies and rainclouds follow us around. Children hear mutterings about Christmas being cancelled and are having panic attacks. We must reassure them that Father Christmas was the first to receive a new vaccine and is fit as a fiddle, ready for many million chimney descents. 

Talking of fit men (insert appalled emoji of choice), even Boris Johnson is giving us a Lockdown-lite version of himself. Rather than being blue lit to the intensive care unit, he’s merely holing up in the flat at Number 10, self-isolating and declaring himself as ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’. Although a lot less appealing. 

While Bojo is indisposed, his fragrant partner and press secretary are setting to and running the show. That’s encouraging. The pair of them helped shoo out Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain so we can all hope for a greener, kinder interlude while they’re in charge. I have this fantasy, in which Carrie Symonds runs off with a suitably millennial member of the Green Party and clears off, leaving Boris holding the baby. A taste of his own medicine. 

Conspiracy theories are at an all time high in these fevered times. I have concocted my own: that Carrie Symonds is a plant, a honey trap and she’s going to emerge triumphant as grown-up Greta, having dismantled the Tory party through stealth and created a vacuum for Extinction Rebellion to take over. I mean, she cannot possibly find Alexander Boris de Piffle Johnson attractive, can she?

Here in Catford, I continue to plot my own Greta curve, although my Greta is Garbo, not Thunberg. Lockdown in spring was a little patch of heaven for me, because it was my first experience of living alone for a goodly amount of time, having always lived communally (see blogs passim). Lockdown November, in which I turned 58, has seen me thrown together with my husband, who chose not to shield his mother in Somerset this time round. We give each other plenty of space (easy in a many roomed, semi-derelict family house) and work hard on not getting on each other’s nerves, even though we’re politically poles apart.

But…I want to be alone, as Garbo famously declared, more often than I want to be in the company of other people. I wander off quite a lot. A couple of weeks ago, (before this lockdown) I went camping. I’d discovered a ‘wild’ campsite in Kent, which was staying open until 31 October, and I had just bought the one-person tent I mentioned last blog, and a new rucksack and a Kelly kettle, so was keen to try them all out. 

It was magical to sleep out in a sweet chestnut glade. I cooked beans and boiled up a brew using the firepit and settled down to flame (and navel) gaze until bedtime (9pm). There were only a few other campers. In the child-friendly bit, a family had decorated their glade with pumpkins, but they were far away from my pitch. There were compost loos and rainwater showers. Owls hooted in the night. I was snug as a bug in my bag.

The plotting continues through this lockdown. It’s like marathon training with bells on. In the short term, it’s important to get out running four times a week, getting up when dawn breaks, meeting my training partners at a legal physical distance for speed, hills, tempo and distance training. On other days, and when deadlines allow, it’s all about putting distance between me and this desk, in this house, in this street. The distances are getting longer. Twenty-mile walks are becoming a regular occurrence. The huge upside to all this determined tramping is bone-deep, brain-numbing weariness, so sleep steals over my body as I read at bedtime, and whichever book I am holding at the time drops on to my face, signalling an abrupt end to another locked-down day. It’s like a reverse alarm clock: a not-very-subtle reminder that sleep is the ultimate healer. Given that for the past fortnight the tome that has been smacking me on the nose is Hilary Mantel’s hardback 900-pager The Mirror and the Light, I am lucky to have escaped concussion thus far. 

Ambulating myself

Hill sprints: honestly, there were hill sprints

As I crack my knuckles and prepare to write this I hear that ‘the patient is ambulating himself and is in good spirits.’

The patient is Donald J Trump and the speaker is one of a multitudinous team of robotic medics that buzz around him at all times. Two days ago he travelled by large helicopter to book himself into a hospital 15 miles away. Yes, 15 miles. It is to be hoped that it dawns on the many thousands of Trump followers in danger of losing their health insurance, that this one 74 year old obese guy is possibly receiving more top dollar medical care than is entirely fair. They don’t think like that, though. More dangerously, they really believe that the Donald thinks like them.

Since I wrote that paragraph Mr Trump has climbed into an armoured car to showboat for his faithful fans still waiting outside to catch a glimpse. How joyful that he is well enough to do this. How the world celebrates that his oxygen (and hot air) levels are good.

Back in the real world. the world feels more unreal that ever. Yesterday was the 40th London Marathon (since 2009 known as the Virgin Money London Marathon). The money bit is very important, because the organisers had to find a way for people to raise their usual hundreds of thousands of pounds for their favourite charity while running 26.2 miles, but in a physically distanced way.

While the elites ran 19 laps of St James’s Park (fabulous sprint finish by Ethiopian Shura Kitata in the men’s race) the other 40-odd thousand fun runners and club runners ran their own 26.2 mile route, then posted their results to the VMLM website to earn their medal. I watched a bit of marathon coverage after I’d run in the wind and rain with my usual Sunday running mates. We saw a few people with numbers pinned to their vests, running their lonely challenge in the Greenwich area, where the real-life marathon has started every year since the 1980s. On the telly, Gabby Logan bigged up the brave souls running their lonely distance in costume, smugly on holiday beaches, tragically in their rain lashed neighbourhoods, heroically in their 80s (Ken Jones, an Ever Present, who has done every London Marathon since 1981 ran it with his daughter, to be on the safe side).

Everyone looked to be in good spirits, but it was a sad old day, in truth.

Since lockdown began and fixtures hit the deck, I’ve tried the whole virtual racing thing. I even paid a race company to run a 15 miler in the location of my choice, all on my tod. I didn’t bother posting my time, though. I am not on Strava, whose peculiar brand of showboating I have never really understood.

Strava devotees tell me that the online competition keeps them sharp and competitive, but I am growing weary with the bonhomie of it all. I was quite pleased last week, however, when my Garmin watch awarded me a 50K Challenge award after I’d combined a very long run with a trip to Wisley Gardens in Surrey to meet my sisters, but didn’t feel the need to share these glad tidings with anyone.

Recently I downloaded a mapping app called Komoot to see if it would guide me on a bike journey more efficiently that Google Maps. It proved more of an irritation than an inspiration, and when I finally stopped it, mid ride, exasperated that it was taking me on a scenic ride around Brixton en route to the Surrey Hills it awarded me a virtual high five and a ‘What a Tour! Why not share it?’ comment, which made me feel like throwing my phone into the nearest wheelie bin.

The whole virtual racing idea is just race organisers, unable to make a living out of creating events that involve lots of excitable amateur athletes crowding together and shedding blood, sweat and tears in their bid for a PB, trying to make the best of a bad situation. I don’t blame them for that. Neither do I blame runners and riders who like to claim their glory on various social media platforms.

As the days get shorter, wetter and greyer, and the shadow of Covid 19 casts a darker shadow over the human race, the need to get out there in real life, in the rain and mud and wind seems all the more important. I’ve invested in a tiny lightweight tent with which to go exploring through deserted countryside. I am not sure how much of this therapeutic meandering i will share on various digital platforms. Although I like doing this, for the record. Unlike the orange man in the armoured car, whose noisy, crowd-drawing ambulations and expostulations must always be subject to public admiration, I’ll try to leave no trace on the world in its season of grief.

Six of one, half dozen of the other

Old Compton Street’s last hurrah?

There was a slightly feverish air to the weekend of 12 and 13 September 2020. The announcement that the much-vaunted Rule of Six would come into effect on Monday 14, coupled with the promise of late-summer sunshine, sent everyone out on a mission to enjoy themselves before the dark cloud of isolation rolled in once more. The new regime, stating that no more than six people can gather together, indoors or out, means that you need to choose your friends carefully, or if you have been blessed with a quartet of children who still live at home, you cannot choose your friends at all, at least if you want to see them in the flesh.

It’s not really lockdown, though, in that parents do not have to start homeschooling again (unless their child’s school suffers a big, classroom-closing outbreak – a few child-free teachers I know are thinking fondly of one of those, given the chaotic working conditions they’re having to accustom themselves to). Everyone’s also being told they must go into the office, or risk losing their jobs, if they haven’t lost them already.

Officially risk-assessed team sports are exempt, but meeting your mates for a kickabout in the park is not. Controversially, donning a Barbour and rusty coloured cords and going out with your equally blessed country casual acquaintances to shoot at unfortunate game birds has been given the government seal of approval.

‘We get the government we vote for,’ announced J, drily, when we were discussing this after early doors training this morning. Although club running is allowed under the new rules, the athletics track remains firmly closed, which means our club’s Tuesday evening training takes place in the surrounding park. This, to me at least, doesn’t seem fair to the other, more sedate park users, who may not enjoy having 20 or more breathless and sweaty clubrunners hogging the metre-wide paths. At 7am, however, you’re only likely to encounter dogwalkers and other lonely long-distance runners, so I remain in my bubble of five other women; we keep each other on track in a comfortably competitive way.

There was some consternation (salacious optimism?) in the media that the last weekend before the Rule of Six deployment would be some sort of Bacchanal, in which masks would be tossed to the four winds while people mingled in vast groups, spraying bodily fluids and partying like it’s 2019. When I cycled into town to lead a Secret London Runs Gin Tour I felt a little guilty for adding to any potential mayhem to the mix.

I needn’t have worried, central London’s still reasonably sedate. Inner cities generally are bearing the brunt of a general falling-out-of-love with The Big Smoke, coupled with an all-pervading national mood of bewildered hypochondria. Those that are sightseeing, eating out and visiting galleries and museums are booking ahead and lapping up (behind their masks) the unwonted physical distance between them and the other person goggling the Van Gogh.

I met my half-dozen gin runners at St Bride’s churchyard, and we jogged and chatted our way through 10k-worth of the history of gin, from 1550BC to the Ginaiisance of 2008. En route for the horrible history of the Gin Craze in the slums of St Giles’s parish, in 1723, I lead the runners through Old Compton Street, always a bit of a bunfight at the best of times. I once lost three runners in the crush there during Pride. When they finally popped out of the crowd, like corks from a Bollinger bottle, they were covered in lipstick and glitter from all the exuberant half-naked party people.

Let’s pause to imagine that now.

Old Compton Street still looked as inviting as ever, to me at least. No cars are allowed, and all the restaurants have decamped outdoors on to the street. Tables are carefully placed a metre apart, and the beleaguered waiting staff are behaving like Patience behind a face visor. We walked politely along the length of the street, masks up and hungry eyes assessing the lunch choices and considering this brave new world.

The Gin Craze, and all its ruinous consequences, fizzled out after a definitive act of Parliament in 1751. I can only hope that the new rules spare the recently unemployed, the new undergraduates denied Freshers Week, the worried well and the terrified sick any more misery and anxiety, and that it doesn’t take many more months of Covid Crisis to emerge with a vaccine and efficient testing regime to help those people who want to party mingle freely again. Me, I’d just like to jump on the Eurostar and see my little Berlin boys.

Returning to the Shire

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Tangoed legs in peaty river shock

Too much thinking time uncovers dangerous patterns of thought. One effect this global crisis has had on many people is to open up vast tracts of what would have been the working day and make a gift of them.

‘So what are you going to do with US?’  These hours seem to say to the bewildered office worker on furlough, the under-employed self-employed journalist, the tourist guide with no tourist industry.

Even the workers who never stopped working have spare hours they would have spent in cinemas, theatres, pubs and family gatherings just sitting there, waiting to be filled up.

I’ve lost count of the weeks, (never mind the hours) but I reckon it’s something like Week 20 now since total lockdown. Most places are vaguely, lethargically open. The British Museum will open on Thursday (27 August 2020). My little local cinema opened 10 days ago. I even have a shift there on 2 September, so I will feel like Shakespeare’s ‘whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly …’

That will be weird, going to an actual workplace instead of repairing to my attic study every morning. My other employer, Secret London Runs, has also re-instated private running tours of London, and I’m leading one of those in a couple of weeks.

So far, so industrious, but there are still empty hours in which to brood, and to dream up alternative lives to the rather unsatisfactory one that Covid 19 has left us with.

Last week, my friend R and I hired a car and drove up to Sedbergh, just within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. She is minded to change her life, and has spent many of those Covid -scoured hours looking at new homes, where the air is fair and people don’t dump chicken shop refuse in your front garden. We looked at a couple of strangely proportioned houses with thick stone walls.

Our northern break saw me haring, then scrambling, up dales and dipping in rivers and watching clouds scud over great big skies. It was lovely.

My attention was increasingly caught by isolated small barns and tiny cottages flanked by craggy fells, which will be snow topped in winter. From there I could reacquaint myself with fell running and become a lean, hardy old biddy running with her Border collie every day. I would live alone (with fantastic collie), bake bread and write my novel. I would swim in rivers and one day, in, oooh, say 25 years, they’ll find my little body curled round some wind blasted hawthorn tree and my spirit will roam the dale from that day forward. Ghostly Marathon Gran. She got better with age.

R listens to these flights of fancy patiently, then goes on looking at sensible-for-the-airbnb-market dwellings in the well-to-do town. I find the whole multi-bathroom thing a bit depressing, but I am old school. And this old house I live in, here in Catford, has had many a flood owing to a badly plumbed attic shower room.

R says she feels a magnetic, atavistic pull to Yorkshire, owing to the fact that she was born there. In fact, Sedbergh is officially Cumbria, but being part of the national park makes it Yorkshire for R’s purposes. We discuss often, these days, what the point of London is, given the pollution, the rubbish and the lack of open libraries and charity shops.

And I too, still feel a pull to the Shire of my birth, the rolling green hills and cottages that aren’t unlike the Hobbitty settlements that made Elijah Wood’s big blue eyes brim in Lord of the Rings. My big sister still lives in my Shire, a stone’s throw from my old school. Last time I ran round the hills and tracks I met no-one. I could buy a little slice of cottage in the market town near the village where I was born…

Then I remember  the last time I cycled into the quiet West End of London and had a pleasant wander about Bond Street and found myself in an Andy Warhol exhibition in the Halcyon Gallery, sketching and discovering stuff I never even knew I was interested in. That’s what happens in London, it’s unlikely to happen in the Shire, even if the beer is cheaper. London can still fill up those empty hours until term starts, and who knows, a British Museum visit, booked online, maybe all I need to shake off this malaise.