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.

 

 

 

What do you want to return to?

pink sky thinking

Pink sky thinking

Roll out, press play and zone in: online yoga classes have been a source of pleasure these past 17 weeks. It’s becoming easier to see the unrolling of the mat as a balm to my increasingly enervated mood, as the endless torrent of gloom spews out of the news feed. On non-running days (and runners of senior years need more of these to imbue each run with strength and purpose) you need the positivity a run delivers, without the physical wear and tear. Yoga provides this, and a decent stretch for tight muscles and inflamed joints, garnished with a generous dose of kindness.

A friend of mine, Carrie, is a kindly yogi, and a friend of mine and roughly  four million other people, Adriene Mishler, is another one. I tune in to the first weekly, the second daily (I recommend Adriene’s Home 30 day challenge). Both women are generous,  dispensing their wisdom free of charge (although I know far more about Carrie’s finances than Adriene’s and can safely assume she is no millionaire, so I pay what I can afford) and both make me feel better.

Up to a point. There’s something I struggle with, and that’s the whole affirmation thing. Sometimes one yogi or another tells her adoring viewers to ‘set an intention’ for the practice, to intone some phrase or other, and repeat it ‘on the outbreath’. It sets up a panicky wracking event in my small brain cells, coupled with a cynical vision of those perfume advertisements that everyone takes the piss out of, in which some fabulously overpaid actor draped in chiffon exhales a word like ‘be….’ and pouts moodily.

What’s my affirmation for the week at 8am on a Monday morning, perched on my ‘sit bones’ on my yogamat in my pyjamas?’

‘Get my work done’

‘Don’t eat half a jar of peanut butter on toast for breakfast’

‘Be kind’

I am particularly sick of that last one. Invariably the people hashtagging ‘bekind’ on the likes of Twitter are the least likely exemplars of lovingkindness, but their exhortations are accepted by the gullible, who believe that they are nicer than ordinary people, underneath all the gloss and trappings.

Yesterday Adriene Mishler had entitled her Day 15 of Yoga practice ‘Return’ and requested that we asked ourselves ‘what is it that I want to return to? What feels like home?’

Once again I was thrown into a fever by the weight of Adriene’s expectations of me. I did not want to let her down. But what do I want to return to?

A pre- Covid world? Well, yes, a global epidemic is truly terrible, but on the other hand my life before it hit us wasn’t all beer and skittles.

Childhood? Not really, except that I would have been able to proceed with A level German if I sent a note to my 17-year-old self  prior to my return. But I’d have to go through the heartache of my late 40s again.

A world where there’s little or no single-use plastic and factory farming and fewer cars on the road? No Kardashians and the cult of celebrity, Trump or Assad? Of course, but I think Adriene is talking about putting my hands to my heart space and returning to the ‘real authentic me’ and all that kind of talk is flustering because I don’t know who that is and my thoughts just turn to the unsightly yellowy tough skin on the soles of my feet and wishing I had the defined abs and better calves of proper athletes.

Turns out the true authentic me is a total airhead.

There’s a rumour in the news that the Government may decree all over 50s to self isolate until all this is over. I am not sure where this leaves Mr BJ so it’s clearly a silly rumour, but I’m not sure if self isolation would be ideal for this inept yogi. I would navel gaze myself into insanity.

Don’t drop CLANGERS

Clangers blog

Running: it’s cheap and enjoyable – try saying that without sounding smug

Catford looks like it’s been dragged through a hedge backwards. Everywhere you look people have taken the opportunity to dump unwanted furniture and household junk. Many businesses remain resolutely shut, some boarded up with optimistic To Let signs. Advertising hoardings display just peeling relics of a time when businesses could afford to advertise. The only people who look cheerful are the crowds of moped drivers, visors up and enjoying the sunshine outside kebab and chicken shops. Everyone’s comfort eating, and the Thames has the highest concentration of microplastics from fast food containers of any river in the world.

Running along the river bright and early in soft, refreshing rain last Sunday, we weren’t aware of the breaking microplastics story as we admired the new urban planning that has created wooden sun loungers for all on the promenade outside the posh flats around Greenwich. In the lush planters, there are water fountains that have not yet been declared a Covid hazard. There’s artwork, an eco garden centre, interesting sculpture, pretty gardens and shady spaces. And boats a bobbing on the tide. Away in the distance, the Thames Barrier is our weekly destination.

I won’t be needing to run any further, since my September marathon is finally cancelled, and the only exertion on the horizon is the virtual Bewl 15. My favourite summer race, which usually sees its devotees charging around the pretty Kentish reservoir, has become a physically distant one, but my friends and I intend making it as sociable as is legal, by running the route on a week day, at the crack of dawn, preferably in the rain to avoid the crowds. We will have to bring our own cake and ale, which is the usual refreshment after the effort.

That’s something to look forward to, in the absence of anything else to look forward to in this, Week 16 of loosened Lockdown. No Berlin, little gainful employment (plenty of unpaid work); no money ( a wee bit more from HMRC in August); no marathon training; no parkrun. Many runners like me will be bereft if the cross country season is cancelled (and England Athletics are being particularly cautious about letting runners compete in anything exciting…despite cricket, tennis and football all being given the green light. Basketball was one of the first sports to be allowed. Why? All the players get to hold the ball. Is it because they only bounce it for seconds, the virus doesn’t get a chance to stick? Answers on a postcard. I’ll be sure to de-contaminate it).

As usual, my Covid 19 voice of reason is MD (Dr Phil Hammond) in Private Eye. He writes comfortingly about an appealing mnemonic, CLANGERS. No soup dragons here, just

Connect, Learn, (be) Active, Notice, Give back, Eat well, Relax, Sleep

I describe the reasoning behind this slightly tortured Pollyanna-ish aide memoire to my running mate, who is a hospital consultant, as we run along the feelgood riverside at Greenwich.

‘Medics love acronyms,’ she mutters, scathingly, going on to explain (as MD did, to be fair) that all these goals are easily achieved if you aren’t cast low by debt, depression, poor housing, a lack of self esteem and unemployment. When all these harsh realities bully their way into your life, riding on the coat tails of a global pandemic that’s terrifying everyone -no matter how rich and successful they are – you’re likely to be exhausted and more interested in the next Deliveroo dose of cheer than a bracing run along the river with your more fortunate girlfriends. And microplastics will be the least of your worries.

 

A to B and 2 Seas

 

Lizard 2020

Keeping a beady eye on the litter louts

All the least attractive bits of normal life – fly-tipping, crowded buses, motorists-on-a-short-fuse, fast-food dependency, work deadlines – are back, but Covid 19 is still casting a long shadow. It’s week 15 of Relaxed Lockdown. I’m not relaxed. The Richmond Marathon website is still bullish about the organisers’ intention to go ahead with the event in mid September, so I will call this week 2 of marathon training.

As the mileage requirements go up, my distaste for the same old Lewisham/Greenwich routes increases, so public transport is called for. In typically laggardly fashion, our esteemed (by far too many) leaders have finally decreed that face coverings are an essential piece of kit for public transport travel. Today, the announcement was that we should perhaps don them in shops too. That was about 24 hours after Mr Michael Gove implied that wearing masks in shops was a bit pansy, or something. I have some rather fetching tartan face coverings that my son sent from Berlin – his partner likes sewing and is as keen as me to avoid single-use PPE. Inside my masks are a piece of the muslin squares everyone buys for babies. I find this comforting. I am breathing through cloth that once mopped up little Charlie Catford, my much-missed grandson.

Thursday’s run was to Stratford International, then, en route to the Kentish coast.  My route went along canals out east from Poplar. I stopped to snap at this pampered pup on the side of a towerblock on Chrisp Street:

Chrisp Street dog

….and ducklings bobbing on the Regent’s Canal. Around Bromley-by-Bow I indulged my usual fantasy of seeing out my days from the confines of a houseboat. Just me and a roof garden. No room for guests and the freedom to push off wherever I wandered.  Lockdown gave me a taste of the sweetness of singledom.

There are many women like me, who go from being one of many siblings, to one young student among thousands in university digs, to flat/tent shares in various parts of the world, to monogamy and child-rearing. It is no wonder we empty nesters become a little giddy and impulsive when faced with the last decades of precious life. We seek a bigger change to go with our hormonal ones. No new partners, thanks, just glorious solitude. Funny how middle-aged men don’t crave that. Some do the new model thing when it comes to partners, but few seem to long to be alone.

Anyway, there were the houseboats, then the still-shiny splendours of the Olympic Park and Stratford International Station, through the mostly closed Westfield Shopping centre. It had been four months since I’d set foot in a station, and this one, gleaming and shipshape at the best of times, looked clinical. Staff all wore plastic face shields and proffered disposable facemasks, gel and wet wipes. There was a special sanitiser fountain outside the loos. You could have filled your boots with sanitiser. Each of the five other train travellers had a bench to themselves. I boarded the train and found I had half a carriage to luxuriate in.

The dreamlike nature of this masked journey continued in Deal, where the clouds sit stodgily on the soupy sea; no waves, just sluggish lapping on to the shingle. It did not look as if it would refresh the overheated runner. The air was still and humid. I drank local ale and ate chips, and admired the seafront flat of a friend of a friend. Londoners like Deal. Almost as much as they like Whitstable. They have bought up second homes here to (English) Channel their inner Jarman.

After Deal and 24 hours back in Lewisham, I cycled to Waterloo to catch another empty train to Poole, and my sister’s beach hut. I took a tent and camped in the garden, the better to distance myself from various members of family foregathered for the seventh birthday of one of my great nephews. Sunshine, strawberries, beer and sandcastles. And bold (protected) lizards sunbathing on the beach hut steps. The one pictured took a speculative bite out of a strawberry, but seemed more interested in the remnants of a bacon bap one of the meat eaters enjoyed for breakfast.

The Sunday long run was by the sea: 11 miles in the heat with a slight hangover, obsessing about my beach-hut breakfast. I became so over heated I removed shoes and run on the sand and into the waves: proper waves, not soupy ones. Despite the heat the beaches were not bothered this weekend by the hordes that generated so much opprobrium in the last heatwave in June, when beleaguered locals (volunteers, all) had to pick up 41 tonnes of rubbish left by revellers.

This morning, a beach hut not so far away from my sister’s sold for £330.000. It is a wooden hut. My sister, a resident of Poole for the past 40 years, rents hers from the local council, by the way. Seems everyone is fantasising about owning their own little beach kingdom, but they need deep pockets for such bragging rights, whether they settle for the pebble dash of Deal or the sandblast of Bournemouth. They’ll still be joining the angry trippers and litter spreaders when the sun shines, however. I think I’ll stick to my houseboat fantasy.