Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Swimmer

It's a sunny September morning and Ned Merrill, a seemingly successful and popular middle-aged advertising executive, is running through the woods of an affluent suburb of Conneticut. He's barefoot and wearing only a pair of swimming trunks.

The start of a new day. His mind wanders to his beautiful, loving wife and his four daughters. He thinks of the breakfast they shared by their poolside that morning.

He walks out of the woods and into the back garden of some old friends, sitting beside their own pool. He chats with them, shares a drink, and the idea of a unique journey forms. He tells his friends that he intends to 'swim' home, across the county, by dropping in on friends' swimming pools which form a consecutive chain leading the 8 miles back to his own house. He imagines these pools as parts of the River Lucinda, named after his adoring wife.

He dives into this first pool and emerges at the other end. Pulling himself from the water with an abundance of youthful vitalty, his journey starts.

The weather's unseasonably warm. Cotton wool skies, low teens, not your typical December day. I shut the gate behind me and set off slowly to the old pub, leaving Christmas behind for another year.

It's the day after Boxing Day. Christmas Day had been a pleasure. After spending the 25th last year on a camp-site in Western Australia and enjoying being together but out of the traditional festive loop of spending too much on rubbish, eating too much junk and doing things 'the way they should be done ', Tam and myself had made a promise to keep this Christmas low-key. We'd done a pretty good job. We'd spent the 26th being spoilt at the in-laws, and now I'd got two work-free weeks to look forward to with the rigours of the next Christmas frenzy another year away.

Past the old pub, I take the lane that leads to Skendleby and breathe in the immaculate views towards the coast before the road drops steeply to the bottom of the Fordington Valley. I exchange grudging pleasantries with a large crowd of country folk busily descending from 4x4s onto a grassy verge, and, as I continue on my way leaving behind just the soft padding of footfall, they traipse, tweed-attired, into neighbouring fields to get their seasonal kicks by killing animals for fun.

As has been the case on every run for the last 5 months, it isn't long before my concentration turns to my left foot. Ever since my jog around The Lindsey Loop at the end of August, it's been an ever-present source of pain and frustration. Whilst it's not really curtailed my running as such, it certainly has curtailed my enjoyment of those miles. It appears, however, that Mr Claus may have brought me a most welcome gift. Whilst there's still some stiffness there, the arch pain and heel pain have dissolved away. Regular visits to an osteopath, a change of footwear, golf ball massage and an all-consuming obsession with foot drills, foot stretches and foot strengthening exercises in my non-running waking hours eventually seem to be paying off. There's a spring in my ultra-runner's shuffle as I reach Skendleby.

Lying in the bottom of a beautiful Wolds valley, every road out of Skendleby involves a fair climb. Usually, I'll take one of the country lanes which lead to the Bluestone Heath Road, but today I fancy something different. If I take the field path past Lodge Farm, I can get a good look at the grand house on the hillside. Sitting adjacent to the route of The Lindsey Loop, I've been past this building numerous times, but always from the opposite direction, and always in the dark.

In a couple of minutes, I'm around the back of the village and climbing over the stile that leads onto the Lodge Farm estate. The grounds have a certain majesty, but the location of the house, sitting commandingly on the rise to the East, is simply breath-taking. I  briefly imagine the family that must live there, the stories of generations that the house could tell, and then jog on slowly, curious and eager to see a little more.

Ned Merrill receives warm welcomes as he meets old friends - members of the well-to-do set with plush homes in the outer suburbs. As his journey continues, however, it becomes obvious that each swimming pool brings him face-to-face with particular aspects of his life, some of which he's done his best to forget.

As the day wears on and Ned sees those who have been close to him more recently, the welcomes begin to sour. His boasts about his wife, his daughters and his home are greeted with jeers or suspicion. In one back yard, he meets a young girl who used to babysit his daughters. They leave together and she reveals an unspoken teenager crush she used to have on him. When he clumsily tries to seduce her, though, she flees, leaving him foolish in his inadequacy. As he carries on, dropping in at the pools of other acquaintances, it begins to unfold that his life has, somehow, gone quite wrong.

I'm half-way across the estate grounds when I begin to realise that things aren't what they seem. The grand facade of the old house, when viewed closer, is tatty and untidy. There's an air of neglect about the place.

Closer still, I see that some of the huge windows are broken. Others are boarded up. Window frames are rotten. Paint has peeled and left behind just shadows of what once was. For some reason, I'm filled with a sadness.

In the late afternoon, Ned Merrill winds up at a crowded public swimming pool where he's shamed by local shopkeepers to which he still owes money. They exchange angry confrontations about his wife's snobbish attitudes and his daughters' recent troubles with the law. Unable to take any more, the swimmer flees to his only sanctuary.

The sun's setting as a shivering Ned staggers up a rocky hill, shoves open a rusty gate and walks through an unkempt, overgrown garden to his own home. A thunderstorm starts as Ned knocks on the locked door of a abandoned, empty house. Breaking down on the front step, he starts to cry.

Another stile leads me over a fence to the right of the grand old house. I make my way along a narrow path between weeds and nettles, and look back over.

The house - what's left of the grand vision I'd built up having run nearby for years - is derelict. The roof of the back buildings is falling down. A sheet is secured by bricks and wooden planks in a hopeless attempt to prevent heavy weather getting in. Piles of rubble litter the disused yard.

It begins to unfold that things, somehow, have gone quite wrong.

I stand and look for ages. Take a few pictures. I feel so let down. I can't help but think of The Swimmer.

It was the 1968 film starring Burt Lancaster that introduced me to 'The Swimmer.' I read the John Cheever short-story, on which the film was based, many years later and was equally spellbound. Both are beautiful, astounding - powerful allegories, perhaps more relevant now even than they were in the 60s.

Moving from morning to dusk, from sunshine to rain, from youth to age and from fantasy to truth, 'The Swimmer' reveals experiences that are set over one day, but represent a lifetime.

In 95 minutes of celluloid or a few pages of text, 'The Swimmer' is a simple, yet deceivingly complex retelling of the most ancient literary form - the Epic. A hero sets off on a journey and has many strange adventures along the way, during which he learns the fragile nature of life. At last, he arrives at his goal, older, wiser, and with many stories to tell.

At the start of the journey, the swimmer is our hero. We believe in his greatness. Gradually, however, with each pool visit, a layer of fantasy is stripped away - truth is slowly revealed, and the hero's fate is, ultimately, tragic.

Things aren't what they seem.
For whoever, are they ever?

I run the remaining miles home, lost in thought.

The impressive facade of the grand old house giving way to the reality of a derelict shell. Does this fate - the same as the one which befell Ned Merrill in 'The Swimmer' - await 'the hero' of my own forthcoming journey? I've mythologised it with 'Six Statements', built it up with words, thought of little else for many months. But what awaits me? If each route is a swimming pool, what will each reveal to the people who love me, those who think they know me? What will each route reveal to myself? Can that Rainbow kid hack it, or is he too a derelict shell with just a knack for stringing a few hollow sentences together?

For better or for worse, all will be revealed in the journey. All-conquering, or crying on the front step?

The door's locked when I get home. A thunderstorm starts as I knock and knock. The house is empty.

I jog round and look through the window. A Christmas tree dominates the front room, lovingly dressed, fairy lights dancing. Lightning's paints are scattered across the coffee table, and various A4 sketches litter the surrounding floor space. Whirlwind's cuddly toys are snuggled together on the settee, wrapped in a red, furry blanket, tucked into bed by their 7 year old mummy. I hear her voice as I look, '... sleep tight my little darlings.'

An empty house, full of my proudest achievements.

I sit on the step in the rain, and wait. Tam and the superheroes will be back anytime soon.

I think of the journey of the last 10 years - the one that's built our family, and I think of the journey that awaits me next year. Suddenly, it doesn't feel as important anymore.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Ultra-Modern Nursery Rhymes No.1: Shadows Over Sunflower Valley

The ground was frozen over, the snow crisp as crystal, as Bob the Builder hoisted the heavy pack onto his back, grabbed a shovel from the front yard, and set off at a jog in the direction of the railway tracks.

Last night, as he'd downed his tools on Christmas Eve and headed home, he'd been full of cheer. A fortnight of lie-ins, long runs on the moors and evenings spent poring over the blogs of a multitude of high-profile US toy ultra-runners. Bliss!

A cold snap had arrived unannounced however, and trudging through the slush on the town's pavements had played havoc with his plastic feet. Passing 'Ye Olde Trumpet' public house, the temptation had been too great. Mind, a couple of pints at Christmas never did anyone any harm.

Christmas Day was still new as Bob settled into his run, the pack bouncing ungainly up and down. In the dawn light, Sunflower Valley looked like heaven. This is the way he'd like to remember it, he thought.

Before long, he was out of town, heading down the farm track through Shady Wood. In the clearing at the wood's edge, Bob the Builder shuffled to a stop. Leaning his shovel against a tree, he discarded the ruck-sack, took off his run-gloves and unzipped the left pocket of his waterproof jacket. He fumbled inside and took out a piece of lined paper and two safety pins. Unfolding the paper and carefully checking its message, he pinned it to the front of his coat. Then, grabbing the shovel, he spent a good deal of time digging a large hole. He whistled a familiar tune as he dug:

'Bob the Builder - can you fix it?
 Bob the Builder - yes, you can!'

When the hole was big enough, he placed the shovel once more against the tree, for a good tradesman always treats his tools with care. He wiped his brow, more out of habit than for any practical reason, since toys don't perspire, and pondered his predicament. A messy job this, but if anyone could fix it, he was sure he could.

Bob the Builder dragged the heavy back-pack towards the hole and pushed it in. It rolled over the frozen ground and landed at the bottom of the hole with a thump! Grabbing his shovel again, he quickly filled it in. And as he worked, he whistled a familiar tune:

'Bob the Builder - can you fix it?
 Bob the Builder- yes, you can!'

A good tradesman never leaves a job half-done. So, after tossing the shovel aside - he wouldn't need it again - Bob stood beside the hole, and placed his little plastic hands around his little plastic ears. With a grunt, he pulled and pulled with all his might.

After what seemed like an eternity, his head came off with a pop! Bob the Builder's little arms shook and shook, and, from the hole at the base of his plastic head, memories started to trickle out like drops of water from a leaking bottle.

A lifetime of memories drip-drip-dripping out of the bottom of that cute little head.

And what memories!

... a glorious childhood in the country,

... lessons in woodworking from a helpful and loving grandfather,

... his and Uncle Peter's 'special secret,'

... his HND (Hons) in building and brickwork,

... the first time he set eyes on the beautiful Wendy.

On and on, drip, drip, the night before Christmas:

... a couple of pints in 'Ye Olde Trumpet',

... double rum and coke, and a few shots,

...the way JJ's daughter, the delicious young Molly, eyed him up,

... back home to Wendy - Wendy and her incessant bloody moaning. Going on the way she always went on. Why couldn't she ever bloody let it lie?

... the first push had been out of frustration. It had sent Wendy skittling over the back of the kitchen table.

... but now the floodgates had opened. The guilt of a thousand botched jobs, hundreds of over-inflated quotations, prosecutions for breaches of Health and Safety regulations - it all came out. The way Wendy looked on him with such disappointment. His drinking at work. His unhealthy addiction to certain web-sites. That little whore Molly's words earlier in the night in response to his clumsy advances - 'No way, you pervert - you're old enough to be my dad!'

It all came out.

Unfortunate for Wendy.

The drip-drip-drip of memories show it all, even the hours Bob the Builder couldn't remember. The blind fury, the drunken rage, the hidden side of our friendly hero.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

... Bob the Builder wakes in the morning with an horrendous hangover. He's lying on the kitchen floor. Broken tables. Broken chairs. Broken Wendy - her little plastic body scattered in little plastic pieces.

... Bob the Builder takes a slug from a bottle of The Famous Grouse and considers his options. A messy job this, but he can fix it. He finds his big back-pack in the cupboard under the stairs and stuffs all that remains of Wendy's doll life into it.

... he laces up his favourite fell shoes, hoists the heavy bag onto his back, grabs a shovel from the front yard, and sets off at a jog in the direction of the railway tracks.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Memories trickling out of the bottom of his cute little head, like drops of water from a leaking bottle.

Until there's no more left.

Bob the Builder replaces the head onto his little plastic doll body. His eyes open. He looks around, startled, new eyes on a new world.

Poor old Bob. Doesn't even know who he is!
Poor old Bob. Hasn't a clue where he is!

He looks down and sees a small, crumpled piece of paper pinned to the front of his waterproof coat. He undoes the pins, takes the paper and looks at its message. 'LIE DOWN ON THE RAILWAY TRACKS,' it says.

Never leave a job half-done. Nearly fixed.

Bob spots the railway siding in the distance and heads that way.

As he walks, a tune from a past he can't remember flitters through his empty little plastic head, and he starts to whistle a tune he doesn't know:

'Bob the Builder- can you fix it?
 Bob the Builder - yes, you can!'

The railway tracks are cold, but Bob the Builder's smiling as he lies down and gently closes his eyes.

A locomotive's whistle down the line tells us that Thomas The Tank Engine's on his way, laden with Christmas gifts for the boys and girls at the Sunflower Valley Juvenile Detention Centre.

It won't be long now and Bob's job will be done.

A very merry Christmas from The SJC!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Six Statements

Empty miles have led to the end of this road. I stop, turn, and look back in the direction in which I've come. The Fast Boys have already made their turn and are heading back over the brow of the distant hill. Their pace is quick, and quickens as they jostle for position and attempt to lay down a pecking order. I watch their backs as they disappear from view.

And now I'm alone.

Beyond the road lies a forest - dense undergrowth scarred by a solitary single-track path. I listen to the sweet symphony of silence and collect my thoughts. I think of the five statements that have become so important to me during this year as I planned my next adventure. Actions, lives, silent gestures.

I step off the road. Begin. One foot in front of the other, a breath, a heartbeat. The sixth statement.

The First Statement.

The vision is about to become real. That was all that John Carlos could think as he walked into the Olympic stadium, clutching his running shoes, on the evening of October 16th 1968.

The road had been long. The plans had changed over the course of the year. But the vision had kept him strong. John Carlos' vision - the after-race, the statement.

The events of the morning had been insignificant. The race had meant nothing. The Olympic bronze medal had meant nothing. The vision, the after-race, was everything.

The vision was about to become reality.

The human rights movement in the United States had burned through the early months of 1968. A wind of change fanned the flames, igniting opinion, indignation and prejudice. The elite black sportsmen who made up the majority of perhaps the greatest ever US Track and Field team couldn't help but be caught up in the fire. Inside a stadium, these Americans were 'heroes'. Outside of a stadium, they were 'negroes'. Sociologist, Harry Edwards had founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). He had called upon black athletes to boycott the Games. For a while, support seemed overwhelming, but after the assasination of Doctor Martin Luther King, the feeling changed. The movement stumbled. It would now be one man's vision that drove it forward. One man's vision that changed sport forever.

On the evening of October 16th 1968, the three fastest sprinters in the world walked out into the Olympic stadium, Mexico. Leading the group was Tommie Smith, winner of that morning's 200 metre race in a world record time of 20.06 seconds. Australia's Peter Norman - second in the race, followed. John Carlos brought up the rear.

Each man wore a badge pinned to his tracksuit top. The badge bore the words, 'Olympic Project for Human Rights'. Smith and Carlos carried their shoes, walking in their black socks to the podium. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck, Carlos a necklace of beads. In a breach with strict Olympic protocol, Carlos wore his tracksuit top unzipped. On Smith's right hand, he wore a black glove. Carlos wore his black glove on his left.

The three men received their medals.

The vision.
The after-race.
The statement.

As the opening bars of 'The Star Spangled Banner' started, Carlos knew the vision was nearly complete. Each action, each piece of clothing. premeditated, chosen with utmost care.

The vision.
The statement.

The shoeless feet representing black poverty. Smith's black scarf representing black pride. The unzipped tracksuit top, a show of solidarity with all the blue-collar workers. The necklace of beads for all 'those individuals that were lynched, or killed, and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred.' The black gloves, a symbol that said simply, 'We are black and we deserve better.'

And then John Carlos' vision was complete. He bowed his head and rose his left fist into the air.

A silence descended upon the stadium, followed by widespread booing. A global TV audience was stunned.

The vision.

Carlos could hardly have imagined the repercussions of his actions. He might have guessed the outrage of the IOC would lead to his and Smith's expulsion from the Games. He might not have foresaw the death of his mother, attributed to the stress of the backlash from his actions. He might not have foresaw the suicide of his wife in 1977 for similar reasons, or his own destitution and depression that followed this. But if he had, I doubt John Carlos would have done anything differently. For John Carlos had a vision.

The statement.

The world was spinning as Carlos stood, head bowed, in the midst of his vision. And one thought kept him strong. Kept him upright. Made him proud. Black America will understand what we did tonight. 

In two weeks time, I start my journey. In the space of one year, I aim to cover, on foot, all the Long Distance Paths that start, finish or pass through Lincolnshire. Over 1700 miles shared between 30 routes that vary between 11 and 147 miles. Each route will be covered in one continuous run. It promises to be one of the biggest challenges of my life.

Is this my statement? I guess it is. But it's something else too - a reflection of my running maturity. I've spent a lifetime putting one foot in front of the other. I've run track. I've mixed it with The Fast Boys on the roads and cross-country, chased splits and PBs. But I've grown and moved along. Discovering the lure of openness during my Bob Graham Round training changed me. It revealed to me a new way of travel. Long, continuous journeys where the emphasis was on the distance gone rather than speed or the time in which the run was completed. As an Empty Miler, I'd found my home.

This project feels right. It excites me beyond belief. But, at the same time, the contrary spirit in me wants to make a point. Wants to stand up for what I believe is the essence of running and rally against the crap that it's in danger of drowning in. As I've run my empty miles through the year, this aspect - my own personal statement - has invigorated me. And whenever I've considered this, whether on rambling jaunts across the Wolds or just sat on the step, the five other statements - the most inspiring examples of doing what is right, showing your true spirit - have never been far away.

The Second Statement.

Many people have, at one time or other, considered walking out of the office and throwing it all away for a life of simplicity. After leading a very conventional existence until the age of 36, Millican Dalton did just that. Leaving behind his job as a London insurance clerk, he turned his back on conformity and shallow materialism, cast off all that weighed him down and walked towards a life of asceticism and stoic simplicity, determined to follow his dreams and live by his convictions.

He gravitated, naturally, to England's great wilderness - The Lake District - and camped at High Lodore, before moving into a cave under Castle Crag in the 1920s. Naming his new residence 'The Cave Hotel', he commenced a life, mostly in seclusion, at one with his surroundings. His strict vegetarian diet was provided through growing his own vegetables on the terrace outside his cave, baking his own bread and foraging nuts from local woods. He collected firewood to keep him warm through the winter, made his own clothes and kept fit by climbing crags and trees.

During his twenty five years in the Borrowdale Valley, he styled himself as a 'Professor of Adventure' and scraped a living by offering 'camping holidays, mountain rapid shooting, rafting and hair's breadth escapes.' Inevitably, these trips would end by a camp fire with Dalton consuming copious amounts of coffee and expressing his strong views on socialism, the pacifist movement and virtually any other subject.

The exceptionally harsh winter of 1947 was to lead to his undoing. He contracted pneumonia and after spending his last few days in a hospital ward, he died on 5th February. He was 79 years old.

Millican Dalton left little trace. He neither wrote books or painted pictures. His legacy can, therefore, be difficult to assess and easy to dismiss. He will be remembered, however, as a man of high principles, a man who made a powerful statement through his search for simplicity. Unmoved by the heavy weather of ego, envy and the acquisition of material goods that shackles the average man to his place in the scheme of things, his life has touched many since his death.

Modern guidebooks carry no notes as to the whereabouts of Dalton's cave. Its location, however, can easily be ascertained through word of mouth. Over 60 years since it was last inhabited, the cave retains a feeling of sanctity. Hundreds visit each season. A handful have a desire to camp there overnight. And, being there, it's hard to shake the feeling of the presence of Millican Dalton - an ascetic for our modern age, a man who understood the beauty of isolation and the fickle nature of man, a man who will be remembered by many but emulated by few.

We've been blinded. Stabbed in the eyes by so many phony protagonists that it's become impossible to determine what is right or wrong. Brainwashed so thoroughly, indeed, that what is so surely right is widely believed to be the opposite.

The act of travelling on foot, of putting one foot in front of the other, is beautiful. To move between two points under our own efforts is an elemental experience that, inevitably, leaves us tired, but elated. Whether walking or running, it doesn't matter - they're just points along a continuum of movement. However, the whole act of movement is being eroded by a modern culture that stresses that 'easy is good', 'fast is best'. It's time to take a breath and reassess.

Over the last couple of years, I've read with interest about the 'Slow' movement. I didn't get it at first. Just the word 'slow' has such negative conotations - it conjures images of bumbling ineptness and inferiority. In an earlier life, all my running was geared around an antidote to 'slowness'. Indeed, the whole running culture, as it now stands, is still a testament to this. Magazine articles scream 'Get That New 10k PB!', 'A Marathon Best In Just 6 Weeks!' Articles outline myriad schedules for running faster. Put any group of club runners together and within a half-hour they'll all know their place in a hierachy determined by speed. Surely 'slow' and 'running' don't belong together?

Maybe, just maybe, it would be better if they did.

For 'slow' doesn't mean just doing things at a reduced speed. It means doing something properly. It means immersing yourself in your task, appreciating its intrinsic beauty. It means taking the time to enjoy. Reconnecting. Millican Dalton knew that. And empty miles are built on those foundations. Time is not an enemy to be fought against (how many times have you heard a runner state 'I've just raced against the clock'?) Time is your friend. Embrace it. Savour it. And as you do, look around. What you see, what you feel, might surprise you.

The Third Statement.


On October 30th 1982, The Jam delivered a hand-written statement announcing their split.

Their fans were shocked. Their record company, Polydor, was furious. The Jam's bassist, Bruce Foxton, and drummer, Rick Buckler, were disbelieving. As two-thirds of the band, they couldn't comprehend that Paul Weller, leader and creative figurehead of The Jam could have submitted such a statement on their behalf. The action was to lead to bitter recriminations for the next three decades.

It's commonplace for bands on the decline to disintegrate. But The Jam were at their peak, the apex of the ladder, and no-one knows what they would have gone on to achieve. However, Weller was adamant that his decision was right. No-one expected the direction he would now take.

In late 1982, The Style Council was born. Paul Weller had put together a collective, built around the nucleus of himself and Hammond player, Mick Talbot, and they aimed, initially, to provide an exhillarating gateway into a cosmopolitan world of cappucinos, coffee bars, Blue Note jazz and rare soul.

Five years previously, Kevin Rowland and Dexy's Midnight Runners had promised the new soul vision with 'Searching For The Young Soul Rebels'. The Style Council were that new soul vision. They were socialists, vegetarians, didn't drink, wore cool rain macs, colourful knitwear, expensive footwear and set out with an agenda to make some of the most brilliant modernist music ever. In stark contrast to other bands of the time, they also wanted to speak out against the corrosive issues of the day, even if it meant commercial suicide.

The Style Council, indeed, was Paul Weller's grandest statement.

The inaugral LP, Cafe Bleu, set their thrilling manifesto. Abandoning the traditional rule book and casting aside the musical legacy of The Jam, Cafe Bleu was a deliberate attempt to confound expectations. A brave, if not foolish, mix of pop, soul, jazz, rap and funk, Weller sang on only 6 of the 13 tracks, 5 of which were instrumentals.

Politics, as well as the mash of musical genres, was also on the table. Royalties from second single 'Money Go Round' were donated to Youth CND and Weller publicly backed the National Youth Trade Union Rights campaign against 'industrial conscription', calling for supplementary benefits for teens who refused to join YTS schemes and for the protection of youths placed on such schemes.

Second album 'Our Favourite Shop' came in due time, and first single from it, 'Shout To The Top' was a fervent celebration of worker solidarity with press adverts decreeing,
'Make no mistake
 This is all class war
 Fight back
 Shout To The Top!'

Next single, 'Soul Deep', raised money for the miners' strike, for whom The Style Council had already played numerous benefit concerts in aid of.

'It wasn't a time to be partisan,' Weller reflected years later, 'It was too serious a time, too extreme. In The Jam, I didn't want to be part of any movement. But this was different. Thatcher got into power in 1979, and from the Falklands war onwards, that was her wielding her power. The trade unions were being worn down. We had the miners' strike. There was mass unemployment. There were all these issues. You had to care, and if you didn't, you had your head in the sand and didn't give a fuck about anyone but yourself. You couldn't sit on the fence. It was very black and white then. Thatcher was a tyrant, a dictator.'

Important records followed.

'Walls Come Tumbling Down' was forthright, passionate and dedicated to socialism. It was defined by anger and bile set to a pounding Northern Soul beat. It opened with the line, 'You don't have to take this crap.'

The Style Council's first two albums were uncompromising and inspiring. 'Our Favourite Shop' hit the number one spot in the UK charts. Weller had managed to bring The Jam's following along with him so far on his musical, lyrical and political journey. But that was soon to change. Weller's finest hours were still to come.

In 1987 'The Cost Of Loving' was released in a plain orange gate-fold sleeve. Being Weller's attempt to create a 'modern American soul sound like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis', it mystified music critics and fans alike, and was a commercial disappointment. Undetered in his vision, however, Weller continued on his personal mission to make music that was important to him, that felt right, regardless of others' perceptions.

The next LP, 'Confessions of a Pop Group' was, in a similar way to Dexy's 'Don't Stand Me Down' (also released around this time), unlike anything expected from a 'pop' band. The record fused barber-shop harmonies, soulful ballads and Debussy-influenced piano suites into a mind-blowing mix that dumbfounded everyone. Fans hated it. It limped to number 15 and disappeared quickly into chart obscurity.

'Weller's lost it!' That was the general opinion in 1988. Paul Weller, however, had one more grand gesture up his sleeve.

In the summer of 1988, dance music took over the UK in a tide of youthful energy and ground-breaking musicality that had not been witnessed since the birth of Punk in 1976. The 'rave' scene transformed the musical landscape and changed the foundations of youth culture in a way that had never been seen before, and has not been repeated since. The drugs associated with the scene - E, in particular- enabled the conservative media and the Conservative government to vilify the movement, but for anyone who was young at the time, the days of the late 80s were glorious. Positivity abounded, acid parties where thousands of people got 'luv'd up' and danced all night in a state of almost religious communion sprung up in disused warehouses and industrial wastelands all over the country. Heady times, all bound together by a bass loop, an uplifting piano riff and a beat from an 808. House Music.

Paul Weller immersed himself in this most modernist of youth movements. For Weller to make a record of dance music would have been unthinkable at the time of The Jam's dominance. Even though he'd now gained a reputation for doing exactly what he wanted musically, absolutely no-one would have imagined what he delivered next to the Polydor offices.

'Modernism: A New Decade' was a House record. Weller had stood firm. His statement made.

The A&R executives deemed the record unreleasable. It was shelved indefinitely, eventually seeing light as part of a box set ten years later.

Weller was furious but unfazed. Integrity intact, there was only one thing he could do. The Style Council, much maligned but the most important band of the 80s, was laid to rest.

'We had a band that went 'no thanks' and we were still successful,' Weller said in retrospect. 'I had total belief in The Style Council. I was obsessed. I lived and breathed it all. I meant every word and felt every action.'

I've been frustrated when people don't get it. A year without racing is incomprehensible to most of my running friends. A year 'jogging on paths around Lincolnshire' is equally alien. But, like Weller, I've a belief. I know it's right. And the few people that understand, I'm sure, will be the ones that I really want to understand.

I'm stepping aside from the 'running scene' and entering a new world that many have stepped into, but few have  so wholeheartedly embraced. A world where times are irrelevant, all miles are empty, and the experience is all. This world can exist anywhere. For me, its orbit is my home, the Lincolnshire Wolds.

Growing up, I always had the feeling that I could live anywhere - that the people around me were the important factor, not my location. And whilst my friends and family are, without doubt, the central thing in my life, my 'sense of place' has become increasingly important. I belong here - this place has captured me - I've fallen in love. To be able to lose myself in its beauty for large parts of next year is a wonderful prospect. Green lanes, field paths, country bridleways, hidden chapels, secluded churches, rolling hills and windswept beaches. These all await me. Freed from the prison of A-roads and the cell bars of the car windscreen, I can escape, discover, pay thanks.

The Fourth Statement.

Sometimes it seems there's nothing left. And it's at times like this that sometimes, just maybe, hope comes from the most unexpected sources. For Terence Stanley Fox, it came in the form of a magazine article about Dick Traum, the first amputee to complete the New York marathon. It had been brought to him, in the hospital, by Terri Fleming, Fox's senior high school coach. Stuck for words, Fleming had thought the article appropriate - after all, Fox was booked into theatre for the amputation of his right leg the day after. The coach doesn't remember the article making a great impression, but he was very wrong. In the hours after reading those words, Terry Fox made a decision that would change his life, as well as the lives of millions of others. The crazy idea that came to him during those lonely hours would be a statement. A statement of perseverance, of giving, of never accepting that enough's enough. A statement of hope.

Terry Fox had been lucky on the night of November 12th, 1976. Driving home to Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, he'd become distracted and driven straight into a half-ton truck. He emerged from the wreck unscathed except for a sore knee.

The soreness had continued into December, but Fox had dismissed it - athletes always had niggles - it would sort itself out. However, as the pain got worse in the opening months of 1977, he swallowed his pride and visited his local doctor on March 2nd.

On March 3rd, Doctor Piper, chief orthopaedic surgeon at the British Columbia Hospital informed Terry Fox of the bad news. X-rays and tests on the troublesome knee had confirmed the presence of osteogenic sarcoma, a cancer of connective and supportive tissue that strikes usually between the ages of 10 and 25 years, at a point in the life cycle when the body is growing most rapidly. Early on the morning of March 9th, Terry's right leg was amputated six inches above the knee. On the 21st, less than 3 weeks after receiving the bad news, he went in for his first fitting for a prosthetic leg.

The magazine article inspired Fox. After leaving hospital he embarked upon a 14-month training program, telling his family that he intended to compete in a marathon himself. This was true, but he kept a different goal to himself for now. Angered during his hospital experience at how little money was dedicated to cancer research, he began planning his 'Marathon Of Hope' - an epic run across Canada - 5300 miles, completing roughly 200 marathons in a row with no rest days in between. This was the dream, but the reason wasn't fame or personal glory. Terry's run would be a statement of hope - a light for all fellow cancer sufferers. His actions would increase cancer awareness, and along the way people would see Terry, recognise his cause and donate money for cancer research. Little did he know at the time that his actions would make him a treasured part of Canadian folklore.

In August 1979, Fox competed in a marathon in Prince George, BC. He finished in last place, ten minutes behind his closest competitor. His effort was met with tears and applause from the other participants. After the race, he revealed his full plans to his stunned family.

On the morning of April 12th, 1980, Terry Fox dipped his right leg in the Atlantic Ocean near St John's, Newfoundland, and filled two bottles with ocean water. He intended to keep one as a souvenir and pour the other into the Pacific Ocean upon completing his journey at Victoria, BC. Accompanied by his best friend, Doug Alward, who drove the van and cooked meals, Fox began his run. The mayor of St John's gave him an honourary send-off, but there was little media fanfare and no cheering crowds. That first day, he ran 11 miles.

The early days were unimaginably gruelling. Running against gale force winds and heavy rains, and frustrated by individuals he perceived as impeding the run, as well as a lack of donations, Fox and Alward arrived in Montreal, Quebec on the 22nd June, one third of the way through the run and barely on speaking terms. Omens seemed bleak.

But Montreal marked a change. Isodore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts, a woman who had lost a son to cancer in 1978, had become intrigued by the 'one-legged kid trying to do the impossible'. She offered him free accommodation on his run, pledged $2 a mile to his cause and persuaded nearly a thousand other corporations to do the same.

On June 23rd 1980, Terry released red balloons from the roof of the Four Seasons Hotel in Montreal. It was the first time in 73 days that Terry hadn't run. It was also the first time that many people became aware of the miracle that was the Marathon Of Hope. In a few short weeks, there probably wasn't a single soul in the whole of Canada who hadn't heard the name of Terry Fox.

As his fame grew, Fox's integrity remained unblemished. He attended more functions, gave more speeches, and attempted to accommodate to any request that he believed would raise money, no matter how inconvenient to his running schedule. Yet he bristled at media intrusions into his private life, and rejected any pledges that demand he endorse a product. For the whole of his run, Terry was inflexible about his wardrobe. He would only wear his white Marathon Of Hope tee-shirts and grey shorts. Decades ahead of his time, he refused to wear clothing that had logos or brand names on them.

During the searing heat of the summer, Fox continued to run a marathon a day. On his arrival in Ottawa, he was greeted by the Governor General and Prime Minister. In front of 16,000 fans, he performed a ceremonial kick-off at an Ottawa Rough Riders game and received a standing ovation. Slowly, Terry was beginning to understand how deeply moved Canadians were by his efforts.

In Toronto, a crowd of 10,000 people met him in Nathan Phillips Square.

In Southern Ontario, he was met by his childhood hero, hockey player Bobby Orr, who presented him with a cheque for $25,000.

Early on September 1st 1980, just east of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Terry ran 13 miles. In the afternoon, the highway was crowded with supporters. The weather was good. 5 miles into his run, Terry began coughing and then developed a 'dull, blunt pain'. The pain persisted and worsened. 3,339 miles into his Marathon Of Hope, Fox got into the van and asked Doug Alward to drive him to the hospital. 'It's not my ankle, and it isn't my foot,' he told him. They drove to the hospital in silence.

X-rays quickly revealed that Terry's right lung had a growth the size of a golf ball. A less-defined growth, the size of a lemon, was found in his left. The bone cancer he hoped he had beaten had spread to his lungs through his bloodstream.

At the exact spot on the Trans-Canadian Highway where Terry Fox's run ended on the afternoon of September 1st 1980, stands a small wooden post. It was placed there in 1981 by Ontario's Ministry of Transportation. Jim Pope, a local mechanic mows the weeds and grass between the post and the highway during the growing season. 'I don't know how to put it,' he says, 'Everything today is to make money. People have to do nice things for each other.'

Terry Fox developed pneumonia and fell into a coma on June 27th 1981. He died on the 28th at 4.35am, his favourite time for running - a time free of traffic and noise. A time to enjoy the day, newly born and filled with promise.

His funeral was broadcast live on national TV. For a short while, the whole of Canada stopped to remember the 22 year old kid.

Fox had raised $1.7 million by the time he was forced to abandon his run. A week after the run ended, a 5-hour telethon, supported by Canadian and international celebrities raised another $10.5 million. By the following April, over $23 million had been raised.

With the help of Isodore Sharp, one of Terry's greatest supporters, the Fox family organised the 1st Terry Fox Run on September 13th 1981. Over 300,000 took part all over the country and $3.5 million was raised. The 30th Terry Fox Run was held on September 19th 2010. The Terry Fox Run is now the world's largest one-day fundraiser for cancer research. Over $500 million has been raised in his name.

Douglas Coupland's exceptional book 'Terry' contains the script of a letter sent to Terry by Darren Hardemann, a primary school student. It serves as a reminder that his life, his efforts, his statement touched everyone. It serves as a reminder that millions of people recognised in Terry a quality beyond simple physical perseverance.

'Dear Terry,

Here is a story for you.
Terry was a good boy but he did not know Christmas was coming. When Christmas came, he still didn't know Christmas was here. But when they gave Terry some candy, Terry said 'I will give you some candy.' And Terry gave them all his candy.

The End.'

I was a teenager when I first heard of Terry Fox. After doing a long run with Our Kid one wintry Sunday, I'd got home, had a bath and settled down in front of the tele with homework on my knee. On days like this, TV was usually background noise. But not today. The documentary we watched together that afternoon all those years ago still rates as the biggest influence on my running life. The story of Terry Fox. One scene - Fox running along a highway into the end of a rainy day, his van following slowly, The Hollies' 'He's Not Heavy' playing over the top, left an indelible impression. From that moment on, I knew that one day I would 'run a long way.'

Fox is still my ultimate running hero. I've admiration for scores of runners who have achieved outstanding feats, but the purity of Fox's vision, his raw honesty and selflessness, and, I guess, the emotion of the tragic end to his quest gives his Marathon Of Hope a status that always makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

His feat may be repeated, but never equalled. He ran his miles in an age when the world was different. For an ordinary man to run a marathon in 1980, right before the first big running boom, was a rarity. For a courageous kid to attempt to run 200 in succession was simply unbelievable.

I think of Fox often. His image appears when I'm down, exhausted, pissed off. When my troublesome foot plagues me and has me questioning myself if my whole project is ever going to start, let alone finish, it's Terry Fox I turn to.

Then a scene from a documentary plays in my head - a crazy kid run-hopping along a highway, and I hear the words to a song that still brings tears to my eyes:

'The road is long
 With many a winding turn
 That leads to who knows where
 Who knows where.

 But I'm strong,
 Strong enough to carry him
 He ain't heavy
 He's my brother.'

The Fifth Statement.

There's a story that goes round. I'm unsure how much of it is true, but speak to any Liverpool supporter who was in Istanbul that night and they'll vouch that it happened.

As a massive contingent of supporters hung out in bars and coffee shops on the night before the 2005 Champions League final, a figure made his way quietly out of the shadows of the back streets and moved amongst them. He sat and talked with them, bought some of them a beer and shared with them his hopes for the following evening. He stayed a while, made apologies and then went back to his hotel. It was an act of community, of thankfulness, that guaranteed that Liverpool manager, Rafa Benitez, would forever be an Anfield legend. The Liverpool fans sung his name that night - 'Rafa...Raphael...Raphael Benitez' with a fervour that could be heard all the way back to Merseyside.

Twenty-four hours later, as the AC Milan and Liverpool teams walked off the pitch at half-time, the same chants could still be heard. Hopeful, enthusiastic, defiant. One might not have guessed that it had been the most one-sided Champions League final in history. AC Milan had scored an early goal and proceeded to weave circles round a Liverpool team that looked out of their depth. Kaka, Crespo and Shevchenko had been untouchable. Indeed, the half-time score of 3-0 looked kind on Liverpool.

What Rafa Benitez told his team at half-time will only really be known by those in the dressing room that night. It's likely, though, that there was no rousing speech, no call to arms. The noise outside the calm and composed dressing room was to provide motivation enough. Through the quiet, the Liverpool team could hear the celebrations of the AC Milan players in the adjacent room. Even though the game was only half-way through, they were celebrating a Champions League final victory. There seemed no return for the shambolic team from England's north-west.

Maybe this was the catalyst for what was to come. Or maybe it was the noise of the crowd. The AC Milan supporters could not be heard. Liverpudlian voices filled the stadium. 'You'll Never Walk Alone' bounced around the ground in an unstoppable sonic wave.

At that moment, maybe Benitez looked at Steven Gerrard, Liverpool's talismanic front man, and for both of them everything became clear. Benitez would make the important tactical change that was to transform the match. He'd tell substitute Didi Hamann to lace up his boots, give him his instructions to sit in midfield and create havoc. Create havoc, and let loose the dog of war that was Gerrard.

At that moment, maybe Gerrard heard the words that he'd sung at Anfield since he was a kid, that his cousin had sung at the semi-final at Hillsborough before he and another 95 Liverpool supporters were tragically killed, that he'd heard from the stands as he'd worked himself up from local-boy-done-good to club captain.

'When you walk through a storm
 Hold your head up high.'

And when he heard those words, maybe he decided to make a statement - to attempt what everyone else believed was a mission impossible.

Making light of those first-half Milan goals, Gerrard tore into the Italians from the first whistle of that second half. In six short minutes, Gerrard scored, created the space for Vladimir Smicer to add a second, and then won the penalty for Xabi Alonso to drive Liverpool level.

It was six minutes that shook the world. It was six minutes that so stunned AC Milan that they would have no hope of recovery. losing eventually to Liverpool in a penalty shoot out. At the end of the match, devastated Milan team members would throw their loser's medals into the crowd, ashamed, unable to believe what had happened.

It was six minutes that turned sporting logic on its head, that sent the in-game betting world into meltdown, that stopped Evertonians celebrating in the streets back home and had certain Chelsea players cursing their television screens in frustration.

Orchestrated by the determination of Steven Gerrard, the tactical cunning of Rafa Benitez and the burning passion of the fans who demanded that each player perform with pride in the shirt, those six minutes were a statement in themselves. Six minutes that showed you should never give up.

There have been some hard times since that Istanbul final. Times when the impossible has not happened and defeat has left raw wounds. But even now, nearly six years on, a familiar exhortation will go around Liverpool players or supporters when they walk through a storm. Two words. 'Remember Istanbul,' they'll say, 'Remember Istanbul.'

The forest is dark. I've left everything behind - all the things I detest.

Corporate sponsorship; hollow world records manufactured by big city race organisers and facilitated by  mercenary pacers; meaningless shoe reviews in shallow magazines subsidised by the advertising of sports giants; exhortations that buying more gear will make you a better runner; treadmills; gymnasiums; pointless running-related Apps; virtual training in front of a TV; extortionate race-entry fees; the mugging of road races by charities; making up the miles for the sake of the training diary's weekly total; interval sessions; track work-outs; sticking to the road; running with a watch; being monitored by Garmin or Nike+. 

All these and more.

Who knows what I'll find along this path? Who knows how far I'll get?

Rain threatens as the clouds above the foilage thicken. Heavy weather approaching. I'll run through the rain, not race it. Knock down my demons. And if the clouds break - if I walk through a storm - I'll hold my head up high.

The leaves paint pictures of parts of me. Raindrops of memories; a comma; a blue plastic box; a singing car; empty miles; a beautiful wife and our superheroes. An old man on a lonely beach whispering 'Keep it up son.' One foot in front of the other. A breath. A heartbeat.

'And on we go.'

The sixth statement starts on January 1st 2012 with the Tennyson 20. 


Saturday, 12 November 2011

Absolutely Full Of Not Much

We stand and watch the fire. Long licks of flame , red-orange embers. And a memory returns, as it does this time every year. Of what happened that night. Headlights flashing on and off. Car doors opening and closing. A high-pitched metallic voice repeating inane lyrics from a nauseating pop song:

'I'm a Barbie girl,
 In a Barbie world.
 Life in plastic,
 It's fantastic!'

The night when one world came to an end. The night we lost everything.

It had been a tough few days, but the last big push of the summer season was almost done. I'd left the house on Friday afternoon and had criss-crossed the South East and the Midlands, standing on the busiest one-day markets of the August Bank Holiday long weekend. I'd slept in the front of the van for five nights, washed in service station toilets, and worked the stall by myself all day. But it had been worth it. This new line was a killer!

It was Wednesday evening now. After packing down at Hull's Walton Street market, I'd driven to the Burgh Road Industrial Estate in Skegness to pick up a few sacks of fruit scented footballs from a local wideboy. All I'd got left to do was to call at the Unit, collect the week's takings from Our Kid, and then I could get home. I couldn't believe how much I'd missed Tam and our little smasher. I'd spoken to him on the phone a few times over the weekend, but you don't get much conversation from a one-year old.

Tomorrow would be the first day off in months. A quick trip to the bank in the morning, and the rest of the day was mine. Might even be able to get out for a run. I felt lost without it, but each day seemed so full nowadays, I just always ran out of time.

The future looked bright. After spells of heavy weather, it finally seemed as though things were going well.

It had been hard leaving him behind on the beach that morning, but I'd returned from the dark night with a new determination. Keep it up son. Keep it up son. My mantra both haunted and drove me. And now I had a wife and a beautiful boy, a family to provide for. I would make them so happy.

I'd resigned from my teaching job and joined forces with my twin. Together, we bought a ten-foot pitch at the Fantasy Island resort - home to the largest seven-day market in Europe. In two years, we'd grown from selling off table-tops to building our own shop unit and establishing ourselves as one of the biggest players on the gaffe. If you wanted pound items, Knick-knacks, household goods or toys, you went to 'RAINBOW SWAG'. We'd shunned the flash of the other market wanabees, ignored the fakery of the culture of gold watches, designer shades and sports cars on the tick, but had earnt the respect of every stallholder down there. They all knew we did well, took some serious money, and whilst some were envious and their respect grudging, most wished us luck. Because they knew we'd made it, not because we were smarter than anyone else, but because we worked the hardest. Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, start of March till the end of September.

I guess when you invest that much time and effort into anything, it can't help but be successful. And there we were - successful businessmen. But concentrating on one thing to the detriment of all others has consequences. I had a son who's first year I'd missed out on. Our Kid had a family that was disintegrating in his absence.

We both knew things had to change. And change it would soon, because we held a card up our sleeves that would make us rich by Christmas and give us all the opportunity we needed to step aside and kick back.

Luck had smiled upon us, and salvation had come in the form of a sports car from China.

A month before the August Bank Holiday weekend, Our Kid had arrived back from Manchester with a couple of cartons of sheer heaven.

'I've got this line from Raj at Premier Discount,' he'd said. 'He reckons it'll be a flying machine.'

He opened one of the cartons and took out a small rectagular box. The box featured a picture of a red Ferrari, over which was written, 'SUPER SINGING ACTION SPORTING CAR. MADE IN CHINA.'

He'd opened the box and took out a cheap, plastic, yellow sports car.

He'd opened a panel on the underside of the cheap, plastic, yellow sports car and inserted four AA batteries.

Then, he'd turned to me, smiled, and said, 'Watch this!'

He pressed a button on the side of the car, OFF to ON, and placed it on the floor.

The car sprung into life. Its wheels rotated and it carreered round in a crazy, hypnotic bump 'n' go action. Then it stopped.

But only for a second.

Suddenly, its headlights flashed on and off. The doors opened and snapped back shut. Its roof retracted, changing the car in an instant from a hard-top into a souped-up convertible. And then the music and the singing started. A high-pitched metallic voice repeating inane lyrics from a nauseating pop song:

'I'm a Barbie girl,
 In a Barbie world.
 Life in plastic,
 It's fantastic!'

We both watched as the crazy car went through the same cycle time and time again.

'What do you think?' Our Kid had asked eventually, 'Cost us two quid, sell for a fiver.'

For the first time in ages, I was speechless. I just nodded.

We'd sold those first two cartons in a morning - 288 pieces gone in a couple of hours. The excitement was unbearable - this was it!

The following day, Our Kid went up to Manchester to do The Deal. The first few cartons had been flown over from China so that the wholesaler could test the market. Two containers full of them were now on the water - they'd be here in a fortnight, but there'd be no more docking after that until the new year.

Never ones for putting all our eggs into one basket, it had taken us no time at all to throw them all in on this occasion. This was our chance. We wiped out our bank accounts, used all the money the business had made, and bought the lot.

All these thoughts were going through my mind as I jumped in the van that Wednesday evening to make my way to the Unit. Our Kid had done some cracking business over the Bank Holiday - record days all the way, and all down to that singing car. And what's more, we had thousands left - the only ones in the UK. The run up to Christmas would be amazing! Maybe I'll take Tam into town tomorrow - book a nice holiday for January, I'm thinking, when the phone rings.

I pull over, reach for the 3310 on the dash and answer the call. It's Our Kid.

'Alright?' I ask, 'I'm on my way down now. Keep those takings safe. I'll stick them in the bank tomorrow.'

'Yeah, alright,' he answers. 'Hey, guess what?' he continues, ' that bedding stall at the end of our row is on fire. Smoke everywhere.'

'Serious?' I ask.

'Nah, ' he goes on, 'They've called the Fire Brigade - they'll be here any minute.'

'Right,' I tell him, 'I'll see you in ten minutes.'

Ten minutes later, I'm stuck in a traffic jam on the Roman Bank. Ahead, in the direction of the Fantasy Island resort, a volcano is erupting. Flames leaping a hundred feet high, smoke smothering the horizon. Lot of smoke for one small fire, I think.

As I pull on the market car park, a large crowd has gathered. Reminds me of Bonfire Night. I jump out the van and bump straight into a familiar face - Old Vic from Mansfield, our most regular customer. He sees me and there's tears in his eyes.

'I'm so sorry, Chris, ' he says and puts his hand on my shoulder.

'Alright, Vic, ' I reply. 'What you on about?'

'Oh, I thought you knew, ' he goes on, 'Your unit's on fire.'

I find Our Kid by the taped-off area. The whole of one side of the complex is alight.

We don't say anything for ages. We just stand and watch the fire. Long licks of flame, red-orange embers. We watch as the flames engulf our Unit. We watch as the flames swallow up the first container of singing cars. We watch as the fire destroys the second container, burning until the metal walls are bent and blackened and the air is full of the sweet scent of melting plastic. We watch, hypnotised, as we were when we first saw that car, and I'm sure, amongst the flames, I can see headlights flashing on and off. Car doors opening and closing. And, if I listen carefully, above the sound of exploding glass and Fire Brigade generators, there's that high-pitched metallic voice repeating inane lyrics from a nauseating pop song:

'I'm a Barbie girl,
 In a Barbie world.
 Life in plastic,
 It's fantastic!'

After a while I turn to Our Kid. 'Wish we'd insured it all now,' I say.

'Yeah,' he replies, 'but those premiums were a bit on the expensive side, eh?'

I can't help but laugh.

'Well, things could be worse,' I go on, 'At least we've got the week's takings. Where are they?'

'Things are worse,' he says. 'The takings are still in the stall.'

'What?!' I yell.

'The best part of twenty grand. It's still in the stall. The Fire Brigade got us to clear the site and I forgot all about the money. It's still in the stall.'

'What, in the safe?' I ask. The fire-proof safe, I pray.

'No - in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box in the stock room.'

Looking back on that night, I'm amazed at how calm we were. Of course, I know that we argued, fought, laughed and cried before we were allowed back on site in the early hours of Thursday morning. Most probably a discarded cigarette, the Fire Brigade had concluded.

We creep around the remains of our livelihood. Embers smoulder as we poke them with sticks. The money's gone. The stock's gone. The Unit will need to be pulled down. We've lost everything.

'Let's go home,' I say to Our Kid. 'We'll get back early tomorrow. Decide what to do then.'

'Alright,' he says, ' Not be early though.'

'Eh?' I reply.

'My bike was in the Unit!' he says, and now we're laughing. Laughing so hard we can't stop.

'Got enough for bus fare?' I splutter in the middle of it all.

'No,' he goes, ' All my money was in the Unit!' We're laughing again as I make my way to the car park and he heads for the main road.

I've taken a few steps before I stop. I turn and yell. 'Dennis!'

He stops and looks back.

'Keep On Burning!'

'Yeah,' he shouts back. He punches the air and jogs off like Rocky. 'Keep On Burning!' he's shouting, 'Keep On Burning!'

I hear his voice all the way back to the car park.

We stand and watch the fire. Long licks of flame, red-orange embers. Bonfire Night. The superheroes press their faces to the window, looking over at the crowd in the garden across the lane. The fireworks'll be starting soon. Tam comes through from the kitchen with some mugs of hot chocolate.

Sometimes, it's only when you've got nothing left that you realise how much you've got. That night was a turning point - the moment I turned my back on a life that was so absolutely full of not much.

In the years that followed we started anew, built another successful business around the important things in life, not on top of them. Before long, Our Kid realised he wanted none of it. He gave up his partnership, studied yoga, bought a small caravan and found a girl who loves him for what he is rather than for what he can buy her.

And me? Well, I continue to work hard, but my job doesn't define me. I'm a runner now, an empty miler, a Dad, a husband.

As the fireworks start, we all huddle together to watch the display. Via the reflection in the window, my sight is drawn from the explosions in the night sky to the three most important things in my life. It's only now that I realise how much I've changed. Back then, I thought I needed everything. Now, I know, I have everything I need.  

Saturday, 29 October 2011


Dawn comes after darkness.

All this talk of PB's was troubling me. For weeks the atmosphere at the Club had been buoyant - everyone was running well. Forum posts would outline new best times for 10k's, half-marathons. Talk on a Monday would be of tempo runs, interval sessions, efforts along the promenade. And whilst genuinely pleased for everyone involved, proud to be a part of such a special group, I couldn't help but feel left out.

My goal wasn't a PB. My running wasn't geared towards it, but I missed the instant hit that a great performance brings. I guess I was jealous.

I'd try and explain my goals for next year - 'I'm going to run every Long Distance Path that starts, finishes or passes through Lincolnshire. No-one's done it before' - and I'd be greeted by a bemused look.

'Oh right,' would come the inevitable reply, 'but what races are you doing? What are you training towards?'

My faith was waning.

Where were these empty miles taking me? Anywhere? Nowhere? Had I got all of this wrong? Tired of racing the weather, darkness had descended.

Dawn comes after darkness.

Every run was a chore. I began seeking company, unable to envisage another long run by myself, listening to that inner voice that had started prodding me and sneering, 'You don't know what you're doing!'

My moods weren't helped by a constant trial of physical set-backs. My feet hurt - really hurt - so bad that the usually painful first steps across the landing in the morning went from a stagger to a hobble. After taking it easy during September to avoid the chest infections that had knocked me down last winter, no sooner was I upping the miles again then that 'not great' feeling reappeared for the first time in months. No steps forward, two steps back.

So, coming into Alford on a run back from work on a Friday evening, I came up with an idea. Maybe I'll squeeze in a half-marathon before Christmas. Cross-country season was almost on us - plenty of shorter, faster races to get me ready for a big effort. I'd done a 1.20 two or three years back before the London. Hopefully get somewhere near that.

Passing the chemists, I ran straight into the memory of someone I knew years back - an odd kid, but a good runner. I'm sure his PB for a half was 1.12 something. I'd helped him move once - must be a decade or more ago - and stored all his stuff in the garage at the house in Chapel. He'd never bothered to collect it, and, although I often thought about him, I'd made no effort to keep in touch. After I'd met Tam and we'd bought our own place together, most of his stuff went down the tip - I was glad to see the back of it. I'd kept his training diaries though - they were in a blue plastic box in the loft somewhere.

I'd got the house to myself till Sunday - Tam and the kids were down at Jo's for a couple of days. I'll dig it out tomorrow, I resolved, do a bit of research, get a plan together.

Dawn comes after darkness.

I'm lying on the bed. It's early - light through the window where the curtains can't quite reach. I'm lying on the bed, but the tiredness won't translate to sleep. I miss Tam and the superheroes - not used to being here without them. It feels like someone else's house.

Eventually I get up, hobble across the landing, then down to the kitchen, make a cup of tea. I sit at the table in the back room and stare out the patio doors.

I can't face the BBC News, and suddenly remember my plan. Grabbing a chair, I cart it up the stairs with me and position it under the loft hatch outside our bedroom. Lifting  the hatch up and aside, I pull myself up into the loft and, by the light of my headtorch, try to find that blue box. It doesn't take much doing, and, a few minutes later, I'm back at the table, fresh cup of tea, ready to start.

I take a big slurp and step into the tardis.

The box is full of blue, hardbacked books. Each book is crammed with concise, immaculately neat handwriting, chronicling not just miles but a whole life. The inside cover of each book bears a label with the period the writing covers.

I pull one out at random, check the date. 'September 1985- November 1986.' Too early. One afternoon, years earlier, I'd looked through some of these. Throughout the 80's, the writing mostly detailed sessions, times and race reports, self-analysis and training schedules. As the years passed, the writing became more personal. Often, running would only be mentioned in passing or simply not at all. I'd felt ashamed bach then, aware that reading someone's diaries - their deepest thoughts - was a crime I should not be party to. I'd read a few anyway, before the guilt got the better of me.

We'd had a good scene in Boston during the early 90's - a group of us had fallen together and a fierce competitiveness had nurtured an ethic of hard work and gruelling endurance sessions, resulting in some reasonable road times. '93- '94 would be where to look.

Hours seem to pass before I find what I'm looking for:

SUNDAY 26th SEPTEMBER 1993    20.23pm
Robin Hood Half - a really good day. During the run I had the same ups and downs as last year - felt terrible along Castle Boulevard and up to Wollaton Park. I thought I'd got my laces tied too tight - both my feet were aching and heavy - people were passing me. I hit a good spell through the Park - getting it together - and things really started to click once we got up the hill and back to Queens Med at 9 miles.
I was cruising after that. I'd no watch, but I knew there was a clock at 10, and I knew I was moving. I went through when it was ticking through the 55's. I pushed the last 3, and as I came down the finishing funnel, I could see 1.12 something. Out of my dreams - a true breakthrough. I was smiling my head off, punching the air like Steve Ovett. Through the tape in 1.12.36.
It's a sign - this breakthrough - this huge chunk off anything I've run before. I'm being taken care of. Everything will be alright.

I read it through a couple of times, ponder the last sentence, and then flick through the preceeding pages for some training tips. He'd been trying to break 1.15 for the best part of a year, always close but never really there. And then suddenly, this massive chunk off the PB. I search for clues as to the training that led to this race, but there's nothing there. Endless talk of arguments - the breakdown of a relationship - some girl from Australia - but no running whatsoever.

I scan the pages that follow the race, but the writing becomes increasingly inward-looking, self-defeating. Although there's the occasional mention of a club run or a road race, it's only in passing. The words are punk, angry, or cloyingly self-pitying and pathetic. It's uncomfortable reading, but I can't help myself. I shouldn't be here - an intruder into someone else's life - but I can't stop myself.

I spend the afternoon on the couch, one page turning another, volume after volume. There's mentions of big running trips - John o'Groats to Land's End, St Bee's to Robin Hood's Bay - but by now I'm more interested in everything else. All these words. Every emotion. Clouds full of teardrops. And all I can think of is why wasn't there anyone for this kid to talk to? Why is it all here in words? Surely no-one can be that alone?

I make cheese on toast before I open the last volume. The day's disappeared.

There's detailed talk of another adventure - a run across Africa - and running once again dominates each page. Months and months of preparation, 210 mile weeks, the hope of a new beginning. And then, no entries for more than six months.

When the writing begins again, the tone has changed. Something happened in those six months, but there's no talk of it. Not one word.

The running, it's also apparent, has stopped.

The last volume - the final blue book - ends with four entries:

JUNE 9th 1998  02.31am
'Get off!' I told Russ.
'No,' he said, and he was smirking slightly, 'All true.'
I had to think for a while about the story he'd just told me, and I couldn't help but laugh. 'Is there anything you haven't done?' I asked him.
He took a step forward, looked at me, serious all of a sudden. 'I sit in the caravan some nights when there's nothing on the tele, and I think I've done everything. That I've done everything and I might as well kill myself.'
His face was straight. He nodded his head. 'All true,' he said.
I looked away - couldn't look at him.
'I'm alone. We all are.' That's what he said before he walked off.

27th JUNE 1998

I've demons tonight pull me aside
                    pull me down
                    pull my hair out in chunks make lovers leave
                              brothers go away
                              mothers loose belief in me carve their name with razor blades
                on skin made raw from punches

And I wait for their arrival
Curled up tight
Eyes closed, head closed, heart closed
Just too tired to fight.

29th JULY 1998
I'm lying on the bed. It's early - light through the window where the curtains can't quite reach. I'm lying on the bed, desperate to sleep - fall asleep, disappear.
And I think of her - that girl I've never met - that girl who'll save me. And I think if I think hard enough, she'll call. She'll know how much I need her.
Waiting for the phone to ring, willing it to ring. Praying, giving everything. And when she rings, she'll just say, 'You ok?'
But the phone never rings, and I get tired of waiting.
Later, in the darkness, I sit on the edge of the bed. I scatter the pills on the carpet and count them. Twenty. Not enough. I don't want to cry for help.
My heart's being squeezed. I have to stand. I wander around the chalet, lights off, a dull moon, and end up in the bathroom. I need a razor blade, some comfort in all this. I take a disposable razor and pull it apart, prise out the blade

30th JULY
I'll run a long way tonight. I've not run a step since I got back.
Looking forward to it.

And that's that. Nothing else. I rest my head against the cushion, close my eyes, think of the last time I saw him.

I go to close the book, but the pages come to rest with the front cover still open. There's no dates on the label in this volume. All that's written there in small, neat handwriting is the name of its owner. 'Chris Rainbow.'

I put the book down. Step out of the tardis.

It's always darkest before the dawn.

The last time I saw him, we were sitting together on the beach at Mablethorpe's North End Pullover. We watched the sun rise, and he took off his shoes and cried a little. He looked so tired. An elderly man was walking his dog on the beach with his grandson. He came over and talked to us. And he said something that I can still remember. He said, 'Keep it up son.'

I left Chris sitting on the beach. Without even a goodbye, I jogged back to Anderby Creek and just left him there. And I've not seen him since.

It's getting dark outside. I'm just looking at the phone, and it starts ringing. The sudden noise makes me jump. I pick up the handset and say, 'Hello?'

'Hi Babe,' says the girl I always knew was waiting. Even all those years ago. 'You ok?'

'Yeah,' I say, 'I'm ok.'

'What you been up to?' she asks.

'I've been travelling back in time,' I tell her.

'Oh right,' she says, unfazed, 'Anywhere nice?'

'No. Not really. I won't be going back.'

'Listen Babe,' she goes on, 'I'm in a hurry, but don't foget to record Doctor Who for the kids, will you?'

'No, I won't,' I say, smiling.

She's just about to go. 'Ok. Love you,' I say. I never say that first, say it too little full-stop, but I can't help it.

'Love you too,' she replies, 'We'll see you tomorrow.'

After Doctor Who, I make more tea and go into the back room. I'm about to embark on a wonderful running adventure. For some reason, a half-marathon doesn't seem important anymore. I pull out maps, plan routes, mark in dates on my calendar. It's all coming together.

It's empty miles that took me from that beach. Endless empty miles that got me here from there. I've a lifetime's still to run.

The odd kid I was can keep the PB's. I don't want them anymore.

Dawn comes after darkness.

I'm lying on the bed. It's late, but there's light through the window where the curtains can't quite reach. I'm lying on the bed, and soon contentment translates to sleep.

In my dream, I'm running along the beach. Above me, on the promenade, stand a procession of athletes, Easter Island statues, looking out to sea, immobile. Each wears a medal and a smile. Each one looks through me.

Ahead, by the North End Pullover, I see a figure get up from the sand and start walking towards the water. I run up to him and call his name.

He turns and looks at me, genuinely surprised, pleased to see me.

'Chris! Didn't expect this. You ok?' he says.

'I'm good,' I reply.

'What you up to?' he says, 'Still racing?'

'Only against the weather,' I reply.

He laughs.

'I'm going to run every Long Distance Path that starts, finishes or passes through Lincolnshire,' I tell him, 'No-one's done it before.'

I'm greeted by a bemused look. Then he smiles. 'That's just you,' he says. He understands.

'Come with me,' I plead.

'No thanks,' he says, 'Too tired.'

I nod slowly.

'I've got to go,' he says.

I step towards him and we hug for a long time. This is goodbye.

I'm further up the beach when I stop running. I stand for a while and then glance back, desperate for one last look.

But, as wave after wave breaks against the shore, I realise he's no longer there.

There's only me on the beach.

Over the water, dawn is breaking.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A Race Against The Weather

The clouds had been hanging over me all day. The restlessness inside me had pushed me from one half-finished job to another. My patience had been thin, my temper too quick. I'd got tired of the times Tam had asked me, 'What's wrong?'

'There's nothing wrong,' I'd answered each time, 'I'm just fed up. Sick of it all.'

'Sick of what?' she'd said.

'Sick of it all,' I'd replied.

Driving back from work that evening, I thought the club run at Well Woods might shake the feeling away. But I'd played a part for an hour. Played the part of the way I usually am. I'd laughed and joked, talked rubbish and taken the piss. But when the run was finished, when I'd exited the stage, the feeling I'd had all day remained. As I said my farewells to club mates, I decided a long run home might be the solution. Instead of the three mile jog through Alford and onto Saleby, I'd head up to Jones' Farm, round to Rigsby, Ailby and back along the drain. At six or seven miles, it might give me time to get things right before I got home.

After heading down the dip through the woods, I'm soon on the dirt track to the farm. In the distance, the sky is darkening. A late summer storm - a really big one by the looks of it. Getting caught in that will be just the end to the day that I don't need. Feeling good, I pick up the pace.

These days, my life was generally lived in sunshine. Things couldn't be better. But, occasionally, clouds would block the sun. A feeling that was ever-present in younger days would reappear and squeeze my optimism dry. Today had been a cloudy day. I was glad it was almost at its end.

On the track to Ailby, my thoughts are interrupted by the distant rumble of thunder. Heavy weather. I pick up the pace and head towards the road a half-mile away. In a few minutes, I'm there.

At the stile by the garden centre, I pause, gather thoughts and look back in the direction of the way I've come. The sky is angry, ominous, shades of black. The storm moving closer. And, in the middle distance, rain is falling, grey confetti, obscuring the view beyond. I climb the step, eager to push on, but am compelled to stop and look again. And when I look, the edges blur and focus shifts.

Each raindrop is a teardrop. Every teardrop is a memory. 

I see a scared little boy trying to dry a bedsheet during the night before his mum finds out he's wet the bed again.

I see a drunken teenager, ripped, blood-stained shirt, punching a night-club wall in angry frustration.

I see a young man, tears running down his cheeks, walking slowly towards a hospital bed to kiss his dying dad goodbye.

I see a lonely figure sitting on a lonely beach, deserted except for a dog and an elderly man holding his grandson's hand.

The raindrops falling. The storm moving closer. And I know what I must do. The race has started. I turn and run.

The path by the field edge is overgrown, but my footfall is assured and light. I'm running quickly, skipping over fallen branches, jumping over ditches. I listen for the sound of the steps made by my rival, but, of course, it's not there. A stillness has descended - the calm before the storm - the sky is about to explode. Looking over my shoulder will admit defeat, but, on reaching the road to Tothby Hall, I can't resist. A nuclear sky is approaching, buildings falling, tornadoes, dust clouds, a devastating tsunami of the worst of times. And the raindrops, the inevitable reminders of the events I've done my best to forget.

I run faster, pushing my limits and then pushing more. But not fast enough. As I rush through the gate towards the Grift Wold drain, I feel the first raindrop, and then another. I stop. Stand still. Wait for the words of the hangman. But no words are uttered. Two solitary raindrops, and then nothing. I look back to the sky, my execution delayed, and start running again.

There comes a time in every race when you realise that you've broken your opponent. After chasing you down, you might run side by side for a while, but an increase in pace will put you back in front. The invisible rope might tether you at first, but once that rope is broken - once the gap is ten yards or more - there's no return. The race is mine.

As I leg it up the hill towards the cross-roads, the storm clouds have sucked the daylight away. In the gloom, I can hear the rain falling behind me. In the distance, I can see the lights in the windows of the houses in the village. The finish line is nearly here. Inside our house, Lightning will be watching Top Gear whilst drawing a picture of a dinosaur. Whirlwind will be dancing in front of her bedroom mirror singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'. Tammy will be making tea in the kitchen. She'll hear the door open and shout, 'Oh-about time Chris. I was getting worried.'

I hit Rose Lane and I'm sprinting. The last few steps and I collapse against the door. There's no time for the step tonight - the weather is on my heels. I turn the handle and fall into the light.

As I slip my shoes off in the hallway, Tam comes through from the kitchen and makes her way into the front room. 'About time Chris,' she says as she goes past, 'I was getting worried.' In the back room I can hear Top Gear on the tele. Whirlwind's singing in her bedroom upstairs. I follow Tam into the lounge and stand by the window.

She comes over and wraps her arms around me. 'You're soaking,' she says, 'it's like you've been racing.'

I'm safe. I'm home.

Outside, the sky cracks and rain starts to fall. I watch the raindrops batter the window pane. And I watch as the teardrops and the memories slide down the glass before they're discarded in a puddle on the window sill.

I turn back to Tam.

'I've been racing the weather,' I tell her. 'And I won.'