The two words that will stop me running

http://www.parkrun.com/

Running in Tokyo, 2014

In the beginning was the burn – and the burn was sore.

A sharp, annoying type of sore, which radiated through the joint of my left big toe. First I felt it while running, then while walking. Eventually I couldn’t shake it off, it stabbed at me as I lay in bed at night.

So what did I do?

I ignored it, at first. Until it got so bad that – in a chain reaction of injury that doctors warn about but those who know better, like me, disregard – it kicked off a bout of plantar fasciitis.

That was over two years ago. At the time I reckoned – as did my then physio – that I’d sprained my toe and that rest, stretching and incorporating some cycling, would be fix me.

It didn’t. After two years of stretching, bathing, ibuprofen, heat rubs and an increasing sense of annoyance, all the while running less and less, I found myself with a new physio and the same old pain.

This time the news wasn’t good. She didn’t need an X-ray to diagnose hallux limitus, a form of early onset arthritis which leads to (the far more debilitating) hallux rigidus (two words that may eventually stop me running). Fun fact: ‘hallux’ is Latin for big toe. Less fun fact: ‘limitus’ translates as ‘oh dear’. (‘Rigidus’ is unprintable.)

Now that we had a diagnosis for the sharp needle jolt through my joint we could go about trying to stop it. But hallux limitus goes beyond just physical discomfort.

Big toe, big joint, big niggle.

Big toe, big joint, big niggle.

As I started treatment I found (correction: I still find) myself looking at 40 and 50-something runners in the park now and thinking – jealously – how can you still do that?

Of course, they may ache too. They may, while lacing up, wince and curse God, or their antecedents, for handing them shaky knee joints, tight hamstrings or a weak left ankle. But still I look at their feet, particularly their big toes, enviously.

And so began the last six months – a period of painful massage, podiatrist appointments, endless fiddling with inserts and, finally, the arrival of spanking new orthotics.

This culminated in a command from my physio – no running for 10 days.

Did I feel better? Am I limiting the limitus? It’s too early to say. My mandated 10 day break ended this week with a meekly-jogged 5k.

Of course this is the point at which I feel duty bound to warn of the dangers of not seeking treatment quickly for running injuries, the benefits of rest and the advantages of gentle walks.

But I can’t. In the past 18 months I’ve been lucky enough to experience solitary, mind-clearing dawns break over some wonderful places – Tokyo, Bordeaux, London, New York City, even Galway – something I could never have experienced without running – or without feeling that old familiar burn.

Lesson learned? Not yet, I’m afraid.

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

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‘Get on the train’ – early morning, California, 1999

guitar1

US, 1999. Pic: Fiona Gunn

There was a time, before dinner parties, insurance ads or any of the other clichés with which his music’s been since associated, when David Gray provided the soundtrack to the parties, road trips, bedrooms and breakups of a certain generation of Irish people.

For these listeners, now creeping towards and past 40, Gray’s 1990s albums were music collection staples.

Back then word of the Welsh songwriter spread mainly by word of mouth . I first heard of him from a guy who lived next door to me at Trinity College, Dublin in the late 90s.

Knowing I was a Dylan fan he mentioned Gray’s name to me one morning. I picked up A Century’s End a week or so later at the old Tower Records store on Wicklow Street, the assistant breathlessly informing me that this was “a great album”.

I listened and eventually shelved it. At the time I was travelling in my mind nightly with Hank Williams’ car across West Virginia – there was little place for a Welsh singer-songwriter on that particular highway.

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Fast forward a year or two to  a small road cutting through hillside trees on the outskirts of Lake Tahoe, California.

I’m walking home at 5am from a night-shift at Caesars casino. Ten hours on my feet has left me exhausted. To bank my cash I’m in the habit of walking home, with nothing to soundtrack the hike except the occasional night driver passing and wildlife rustling in the undergrowth.

And David Gray’s White Ladder. I have – like almost everyone I knew – a copy of the album, in my case on a Sony C-90 cassette.

South Lake Tahoe Pic: Mark Milller

South Lake Tahoe
Pic: Mark Milller

The song I’m listening to is the album closer, a cover of a 1980s Soft Cell ballad. Perhaps it shouldn’t work in the hands of the Welsh strummer, but it does. A ballad of love and rejection in the back streets of Soho, with Gray’s Van Morrison-esque treatment Say Hello Wave Goodbye become the sound of the early morning.

Most of his performance is serviceable but Gray’s long coda, where he works in a ghostly fragments of Into The Mystic and Madame George (“get on the train, the train, the train…”) is what I want to hear as I walk along Pioneer Trail each morning.

These closing two minutes capture the feelings of escape and movement and solitude, loneliness and distance and excitement, that cross our paths only a handful of times. “In the wind and the rain now, darling, say goodbye.”

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I recently read that Gray has released a song called  – and I smiled at this, given my work in Lake Tahoe back then – Snow In Vegas. He’s still around, still making music, even doing it with the likes of Leann Rimes. And so times move on.

Last weekend as I walked home from the store, idly shuffling through the contents of my iPod, up popped that bass-heavy acoustic downstrum and the opening lines, “standing at the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain…”

As it does the years, the trains and the rain, the jobs, the long parade of faces and names and situations, the good times and the bad, disappear. It’s 4.30 on a July morning and I’m on the Pioneer Trail again, and it’s all open and in front of me.

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In a station of the DART

tracxk‘Petals on a wet, black bough’ –

Autumn’s leaves down on the track.

If Ezra Pound returned, and stood on the platform at Killester,

What would appear?

Just the same,

Wet petals.

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‘You call it as you see it, and stay in the action’

play-it-cover1When nothing is all that’s left in the game, why keep playing?

Why not?

That’s the answer given by failed actress Maria Wyeth, her final words on the closing page of Joan Didion’s terrifying, clinical novel Play It As It Lays.

The book, published in 1970, consolidated Didion’s fame. Almost half a century later its theme – how to save your humanity in the Age of Everything Now – seems as relevant as ever.

Maria Wyeth is divorcing, or not divorcing, her husband. She makes an effort to reignite her career – which fails. She drinks, tries to sleep, drives the freeways of Los Angeles and hopes to somehow regain custody of a daughter she’s lost. Despite occasional, desperate moments of connection she’s lost, a passive onlooker in her own life.

Sound familiar? Didion’s character may be an extreme exemplar, but five per cent of people suffer from depression, a figure that’s rising. Many of these individuals have plenty to eat, a career, children and money in the bank. And yet.

“She had a sense that the dream had ended and that she had slept on,” Didion writes of Maria, the onetime ingenue now reduced to swallowing handfuls of Seconal, existing in an environment of empty sex, listless career failure and relentless dread – her days strung out under a searing, white California sun.

Joan Didion Pic: David Shankbone

Joan Didion
Pic: David Shankbone

The actress is dangerously adrift in a sea of decadent plenty, so much so that the book’s final scene, in which a catatonic Maria holds a suicidal acquaintance’s hand as he overdoses in her bed, is less shocking than the preceding narrative.

Despite this, after 80 or so chapters spent in Maria’s life, Didion’s novel emerges as a tale of survival. Not all of life’s survivors are confronted by life-threatening situations, starvation, war or violence. Some are handed the 20th century’s bounty. But can they bear its weight?

Some can, if – as Maria finds – they come to a simple, final realisation. “I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing’.”

This nothing is the heart of Didion’s novel. It’s the poolside starlets’ conversations, it’s the night terrors Maria suffers after her abortion, it’s the reason she drives the LA freeways for days at a time, without a destination.

At the end it’s what Maria Wyeth accepts – and moves past. “You call it as you see it, and stay in the action,” she tells us, the words of a gambler for whom surviving is winning, even if the victory – for her –  is played out in a psychiatric facility.

Her words may be some small advice for surviving the drift of Western life in 21st century, where all choices are available, all desires can be fulfilled, but dissatisfaction still grows.

At the end of Play It As It Lays Maria’s psychiatric treatment, the loss of her hospitalised child, the death of her mother, and her overwhelming feeling of disconnection are seen as byproducts of a First World whose material rewards satisfy every whim, yet whose “disorganisation is general”.

Forty-five years later, in an equally saturated, satiated age, one can’t help wondering if Didion’s character made it out alive.

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

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Off the edge of the sea

dolymount1

 

Buoyant, sometimes white or black,

But mostly an unobtrusive grey,

They hang off the edge of the sea.

The clouds off Dollymount don’t move –

Midway from here to the Isle of Man they remain

Simply there, a reminder.

A little rain falls on all, the singer sang –

Some days it comes down, most days it doesn’t.

On the day the sun’s up and the air’s clean and we’re all

Almost assured of our place, the clouds don’t come to shore.

They’re there, though.

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The breath and beat and bloom of Picasso

'Still Life with a Mandolin' Pablo Picasso

‘Still Life with a Mandolin’
Pablo Picasso

Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.

What makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you.

Brian Eno’s observation occurred to me as I walked around the National Gallery of Ireland recently.

I was there to view an exhibition of paintings and photography by the Irish artist Sean Scully. As I walked around the five rooms, all concrete and space and shuffling, I felt distracted – by other visitors, noise, the whisperings of the security guards. With the exception of one or two pieces I felt at odds with the exhibits.

Pablo Picasso, 1916 Pic: Amedeo Modigliani (detail from photograph)

Pablo Picasso, 1916
Pic: Amedeo Modigliani (detail from photograph)

Any connection I felt was faint, dipping in and out.

Bored, and somewhat annoyed, I left. As I did so, and with time to kill, I noticed the Gallery’s display of works from its permanent collection. Figuring I’d have a quick glance at the Gallery’s heavy-hitter, The Taking of Christ, I stepped in.

The Caravaggio was there, along with a wealth of other paintings from the 15th to the 20th centuries. It made for a pleasant, if not soul-grabbing, 20 minutes.

Then, as I was preparing to leave, there it was. Near the final room and amid a clutch of 20th century works, hung Still Life with a Mandolin. Perspective bending and saturated with Mediterranean colour the painting seizes attention. Minutes passed as I attempted to trace my way around Pablo Picasso’s work – over the bowl of fruit, across the wine bottle, up through the silhouette of the trees outside.

It left an impression as vivid at the light of Juan-Les-Pins –  even though it’s a night still-life.

Picasso created the work at Juan-Les-Pins in the summer of 1924, a year after Cubism had been declared dead. Not so, he painted.

But a biography of the work is inessential. As Eno indicated, the value of standing before Still Life with a Mandolin lies outside the painting, in the emotions I/you feel.

Life, light, summer, music, wine, fruit – all the good, true and important things are here, breath and beat and bloom.

The painting’s on display until the end of the year. Have a look – it may trigger something.

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Facing the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

  

Must all journey’s end

In this place, or another? – 

Sunrise on the square.

—–

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All that remained was long grass

132.Richard Flanagan-The Narrow Road To The Deep North coverAnd of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. 
Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.

Will we be remembered after our deaths? Our legacy, for most of us, will be confined to the memories of loved ones and friends. As they pass, so what remains of us ebbs away.

Our grandchildren may remember us, our great-grandchildren may read our names half a century hence, but by then they’ll likely be meaningless, small notches in history. Traces.

The lines above are from Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North, a novel which depicts the experience of Australian prisoners of war forced to build the notorious Burma Death Railway in the Second World War.

Memory is at the core of the book – the soldiers’ memories of home during their imprisonment and their memories of the railway, and each other, decades later, as men in the last light of life.

In as much as it can be relied on, memory is a finite thing, a resource that runs down, like our years.

POWs laying track on the BUrma Death Railway, 1943.

POWs laying track at Ronsi, Burma in 1943.

And so a great human outrage – the construction of a railway though 415 km of murderous tropical terrain in just 11 months at the cost of 160,000 lives – fades in the mind. Even this, an experience more deserving of remembrance than most, one of mankind’s brutal catastrophes, slips away.

It exists in commemorations, in records and in pictures. But these are impressions, facsimiles of reality. Even the men who lived it, as Flanagan depicts them, find it hard to remember all the details as they approach the end of their lives.

Reading Flanagan’s book leaves one with a realisation. If the memory of an event wich as the building of the Burma Railway, and the men involved, fades what hope is there that any of us will be remembered after we pass?

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50 years on, bidding farewell to The Dead

The Grateful Dead, 1970.

The Grateful Dead, 1970.

What a long, sometimes strange, trip it was.

This weekend, after 50 years of music and two decades on from the death of Jerry Garcia, the original members of the Grateful Dead will take to the stage for the last time.

Fans at Chicago’s Soldier Field – some of whom paid $11,000 for their general admission ticket – can expect a blueprint Dead performance: four hours of music, built around the jazz-inflected solos and space rock jams that the band’s become renowned for over the past half century.

For some it’s the end of an era, one rooted in a 1960s San Francisco that seems impossibly distant from 2015. For others it’s ‘did they not wrap up years ago’?

For those of us in between, it’s a case of mild nostalgia leading to a dig through the archives.

Or, as WH Auden wrote on the death of earlier cultural giant: “A few thousand will think of this day
as one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual”.

Grateful_Dead_-_Workingman's_DeadMy own interaction with the Dead’s music is, by a fan’s standards at least, lamentably limited. In fact it’s mainly based around two albums, a pair of stripped-down acoustic recordings released within five months of each other in 1970 – Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

Both were recorded at a time when the band was under financial and other pressures – Phil Lesh later recounted how Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Box Of Rain were inspired by the terminal illness of Lesh’s father.

The albums are peopled with characters from the first half of the American 20th century – some real (Casey Jones, Mississippi John Hurt) some an amalgam of the nameless thousands (the cut-adrift singer of Brokedown Palace, the drifter happy to meet a Friend Of The Devil).

One song in particular has stood out in the 20 years or so since I first heard it.

Ripple is the axis on which American Beauty turns, an existentialist lyric in an easy turn of phrase, on top of a gentle melody.

Owing more Thoreau than Timothy Leary the recording stands, 45 years later, as a call to self-reliance:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone.

To those who listened, the Dead brought us this far – now we’re on our own.

 

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The silence of the yams

IMG_5462I was a little late to the feast when it came to In Defence Of Food.

My secondhand edition of Michael Pollan’s healthy eating treatise is garnished with words like ‘bestseller’, ‘must-read’ and ‘Book of the Year’.

The year in question was 2008 and – though time and food fads may have moved on since then – common sense hasn’t. Pollan’s recipe for eating holds true.

A bit like the ‘whole foods’ that he repeatedly praises, Pollan’s central thesis is served fully formed: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

It’s simple. And it’s a theory that frees you from focusing (or obsessing) on vitamins, saturated fats, free radicals, metabolic syndrome or any other effects of the foods or food-like products you eat – the ones that may or may not cause obesity, cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

Pollan’s advice won’t work for everyone. In fact it’s unlikely to work for most. Food producers make money from industrially growing their produce, food companies from refining it, doctors from treating the effects of eating it, and Big Pharma from making new drugs to better treat the diseases caused by the effects of eating it.

'Mostly plants.' Borough Market, London Pic: Clare Kleinedler

‘Mostly plants.’ Borough Market, London
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

And our brains, which crave glucose, don’t complain when we give them more and more of the stuff, usually from refined carbohydrates.

This is the food industry that whole foods (described by Pollan as ‘food that your grandmother would recognise’) are up against, and have been for the past 50 years. Not as profitable as processed foods, a simple vegetable can appear mute in the face of the multi-billion euro marketing yell of the food industry.

It’s ‘the silence of the yams’, as Pollan puts it.

There may have been a time when we regarded processed food as better for us (margarine, conveyor of spreadable trans fats, was marketed in the 1950s as healthier than butter) but that Atomic Age attitude has long since disappeared. Now we eat it because it’s cheap and there’s lots of it.

And it’s there too, in your face. Walk into any supermarket and compare the screaming colours of the centre aisles to the vegetables around the outside.  Away from the supermarket watch TV, browse social media, go to a sports’ event or a gig – and count the ads.

Amidst the noise, the claims, claims and more claims, the appeal of simple, non-scientific advice is strong.

Does it work? I’ve no idea. Neither does anyone else, definitively at least.

But I’ll err on the side of the Neolithic people whose tomb I visited last week, and the hundreds of generations since, up to the mid-20th century, by eating food, not too much, mostly plants.

Washed down by a little wine.
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