A collection of short stories and journalistic commentaries depicting my simple life
and how I fit in with the modern day universe of our times

CALL THIS FUN?




            I always used to think that my age really didn't matter to me, and I have often said that I could face any imminent birthday with equanimity, provided I got aftershave or a new pair of socks. Friends, I was wrong. By the time you read this, I shall already have celebrated my forty seventh birthday and survived some major surgery. I never thought that I would be worried about being fifty: but now that I nearly am, I am. Very.

            Traditionally, the beginning of the sixth decade of life is a time for full review. It is a time for review of one's past achievements and review of one's dwindling potential for the future. Depending on how honest one is (and at the moment, this one is not very), it is also a time for reviewing the enlarging potential for enlarging one's dwindly past achievements as one reviews them. In private I swore to myself that, come the day, I would not fall prey to maudlin introspection but would face the onset of senescence with a spiritual calm and tranquillity. But that was before I took part in that damnable mass run, jog episode.

            Now I have nothing against mass jogs: several of my best friends are joggers and a few of them celebrate mass. I have always said that what a man does in the early morning or late in the evening, even if it involves dressing up in peculiar clothes and doing a lot of heavy breathing, is his own affair. In fact, like most doctors brought up to believe in preventative medicine, I have always thought that a healthy diet and a bit of jogging would be the answer to most twentieth century ills, e.g. heart disease, gallstones, loss of the ozone layer, Lassa fever and global warfare. And of course, just like most doctors brought up to believe in preventative medicine, I recommended it to all my friends but never actually tried it myself. You see I never thought I actually needed to (like most patients brought up not to believe in preventative medicine). As a matter of fact I thought that despite the spare tyre, I was pretty god dam fit, thank you very much.

            I reckoned that in the daily grind of my vigorous and demanding life I got plenty of exercise already: things like humping around my old toolboxes, up and down stairs while I install new bathroom suites, carting out the trash to the dustbins outside (much the same thing as regards weight, content and artistic merit), lifting the dust cover off my computer keyboard, and tearing up the little cards and leaflets that appear through my letter box advertising highly suspect local tradesmen. Keeping myself in constant trim this way, I was fairly confident that if I were to be suddenly faced with some James Bond type situation, such as wrestling a giant Manta Ray or carrying Ursula Andress up a mountain (much the same thing as regards weight, content and artistic merit), I would be able to easily cope.

            I suppose I thought that I would just snap into it (or them) and that those rippling muscles of mine, honed and trimmed by years of patient work-out during coffee making and reading of the Sunday papers, would carry me through the day. Came the day, they didn't. Came the day after, they wouldn’t even carry me out of bed.

            It all seemed like a jolly enough idea at the time. They rang me up and said, look, all these people are going on this jog and isn't that a good idea? And I said yes, yes, a jolly enough idea (believing in the idea of preventative medicine). And they said, it’s a jog not a race and it only lasts thirty minutes and no matter how famous you think you are, you should be able to survive thirty minutes of jogging, shouldn't you? And so, still believing in the benefits of preventative medicine, I said, yes, yes, count me in, and privately hoped that the whole thing would be cancelled due to an earthquake or a plague of frogs. No such luck.

            So that is why on a crisp Saturday morning, I found myself on the athletics track of the big stadium of my local leisure centre (even the sight of it gives me fibrositis now). I looked around me and saw three hundred assorted pseudo-athletes dressed in an extraordinary variety of jogging shorts (ranging from sub-Olympic silk, slit up the side things to ones made of material that I probably last saw on a deckchair). Most of us were trying to preserve the last vestiges of a hopelessly shrivelled dignity by standing around in clumps of three or four as if we were at a cocktail party at which someone had stolen all the drinks, canapés, peanuts and guest's clothing.

            A few of the more professional and athletic gentlemen were warming up, doing press-ups and some manoeuvres that looked a bit like post-natal pelvic floor exercises. I studied these activities from afar and thought that they looked like the sort of thing that I ought to be doing, but then realised I didn't know how; so I pretended that I didn't want to. In the end I compromised by limbering up - well more like lumbering up, really - by running 20 yards, followed by an intensive burst of callisthenic autograph signing.

            After ten minutes of that, I was raring to go; or at least to go and have a lie down. But then they gathered us all together at the starting line, told us it was a jog and not a race, and, in the unfortunate absence of an earthquake or plague of frogs, fired the gun, and we were away. My first thoughts were to remind myself that this was not a race and that I should pace myself for the whole jog and not burn out too early: even so, we natural athletes are virtually un-restrainable, and within seven seconds of the start I was eleven yards down the track and already being lapped by a fell walker and two marathon runners.

            After the first 100 yards, I settled into my accustomed loping stride, or rather something that I hoped would look like my accustomed loping stride, though it was more a variation on a limp. I got into something like a steady rhythm and after one hour of nerve-wracking gut-splitting effort, I was surprised to hear the announcement over the public address system that we had been running for just under ten minutes. I took the opportunity to review my current status. My breathing was stertuous and had all the regularity of a drum solo by Phil Collins with a sore wrist. My left leg was undoubtedly developing early signs of rigor mortis. My right pectoral muscles seemed to be developing botulism, and I had a sneaking suspicion that my deltoids had caught Dutch Elm Disease. Every other part of me was fine except for insipient rabies. I noticed a strange white blur to my left and dimly wondered if it was one of those weird visual troubles that Amundsen's lot got at the pole; but then I remembered that I hadn't eaten any Polar bear liver, let alone too much, and that my recent exposure to a horizon white-out was pretty minimal. The white blur was actually caused by a steady stream of runners overtaking me on the inside.

            I have heard it said on a long distance run you have time to listen to the natural tunes and rhythms of your own body. I listened. What I heard suggested to me that my pericardium, the fine and delicate wrapping around my heart, was on fire. I could hear my muscles aching. In fact after nine laps I began to develop muscle pains in places I was sure I didn't even have muscles. Everything hurt even my toenails and eyelashes. Air suddenly seemed to be a commodity in very short supply, if not actually out of stock. I seemed to be slowing right down, as if running in treacle, an effect I attributed to the aerodynamic drag caused by the little paper number pinned to my shirt. In review, as I came into the last lap, my summary of the situation was that I was forty seven years old, thoroughly insane and unlikely to live to be fifty.

            A hundred yards from the end, I rallied very slightly and regained my composure; I even saw a group of pensioners who were scarcely twice my age and who had only lapped me six times. Not so bad for 47 after all, I thought. I crossed the finishing line with the style and grace of Landseer’s ‘Stag At Bay’, though most people said it looked more like Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ or even Van Gogh’s ‘Wooden Chair’. Nonetheless, I had jogged and I had survived; or so I was told.

            And in the bar afterwards: my, what bravado and braggadocio there was! Were these my fellow crucifees now clustering round, eager with chatter and orders for slim-line tonics, declaring to a man what fun and how bracing it all had been? And would I become one of them now? Would I turn hypocrite and lie through my teeth about how awfully super and jolly easy it had been? Of course I would. I mean, I don’t mind looking a fool but there’s no point in looking stupid as well, is there?

            Back at the railway station it took me eighteen minutes to walk the twenty yards from the train to my car. Having got to it, I couldn’t lift my foot high enough to get in it. The next day it took me fifteen minutes to get down the three steps en-route to my bedroom. Breathing seemed to be an exercise I didn’t have enough breath for. Standing up was a luxury I forced myself to do without. Mind you, James Bond might have felt the same the day after hauling Ursula Andress up the mountain. So might the Manta Ray. One just doesn’t know.

            And now, facing the truth at 47, whatever next? Am I game for the next physical challenge to this ageing, crumbling frame? Of course I am. Let me make it quite clear that if I am ever invited to join another mass jog, I’ll join up at once. Provided I’m still 47, that is. 

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Its my own fault really, its all about what I see in the world, and how it all translates for me.

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