‘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.