The Running Game
I’ve written this blog in my head on many occasions in the past couple of weeks. Of course, now that I sit down to document all of those words that seemed to come so effortlessly at the time, they have retreated to a dark, cob-webbed, inhospitable corner of my brain, joining other subjects such as GCSE Science, how to iron a shirt effectively, and anything related to Plymouth Argyle success stories.
Anyway, for the previous two months now I’ve been running…quite a bit. The motivation for which came from multiple prompts, but in short it is down to a combined drive to lose weight, and to develop a healthier body and mind…..blah, blah, blah, etc, etc. Thus, in this blog post I’d like to share my insights on the mental torment, but ultimate joy that running brings, and the intricate battles that can leave you teetering on the edge of abject failure, or a warm sense of achievement. The reason I’ve written this post in my head so many times is due to the fact as I go round and round the park, lap after lap, I try to divert my thoughts towards anything but the run.
Now, I know what you are thinking – this new regime merely represents a temporary new year’s resolution-style commitment, which begins with an all guns blazing Mo Farah-esque dedication to pounding the pavement, and ends as quickly as it started with the disgraced sight of me sobbing into my Banks beer and whining about how I’ll never get fit!
However, so far after a few weeks of avoiding alcohol as much as possible (like Prince Harry avoiding the paparazzi at a costume party) and a dedicated program of running at least four times a week, I am currently beginning to reap the rewards, albeit slowly. I started modestly, managing just two laps of the nearby National Park here in Georgetown, and they weren’t easy laps. In the unrelenting Guyana climate it felt as if the heat was singeing my lungs and the ground gripping and clinging to my ankles. It is one mile from my house to the park, and each lap is also a mile in total. So, at that stage I was struggling to complete three miles.
Initially I began by running in the mornings at 5.45am, but that plan soon failed due to the fact I struggle to function without a cup of tea. I moved the runs to the early evenings and a couple of weeks ago, as the sun began to set over the park, and the guards prepared to lock the gates for the evening, I completed my seventh lap and mile eight of the run. Whilst taking great satisfaction in that moment, I think what pleased me more was the fact I didn’t collapse into a heap as soon as I exited the gate, but realised there was still some energy in the lungs.
I have run a little in the past, completing several half marathons, but I think this current period is the most consistently I’ve ever committed to it. Also, my previous running experiences took place in the UK, and running in the humidity and heat of Guyana presents a new challenge.
I’ve been reminded in recent weeks that the mental battle is far greater than the physical. So many factors unite to convince your brain that running is the most ludicrous idea in the world, and you are far better sitting in a chair, drinking tea, and reading a book. Conquering the urge to shut down and do nothing, as opposed to running has been a challenge at times.
During the working day my attitude to the impending post-work run fluctuates more erratically than Zimbabwean inflation. One moment I can’t wait to free myself from the computer screen, plug in the iPod and enjoy the early evening sun, and the next minute my legs feel like lead, and I convince myself I haven’t taken in enough fluids that day and if I run I’ll collapse in a heap and melt. I have found though that there are two main factors which have helped me edge the battle so far;
1. The Running Playlist
In recent weeks I have been reminded of the magnitude of the perfect running playlist. The monotony of each lap would be too much without music. Getting your playlist right can propel you, but getting it ever so slightly wrong is a jogging calamity. I haven’t yet quite perfected it. I’m often close, but there are always one or two rogue tunes that simply don’t work on a running playlist and thus completely upset the applecart (the applecart carrying my mental strength).
Presently one particular song causes a confusing mix of humour, suppressed rage, minor insanity, strained vigour, and sporadic muscle spasms (but not necessarily in that order). It’s also a song that proved to me once and for all that I’m a little odd. I’ll verify this (not that I need to I hear you cry) by revealing here and now that about fifteen minutes into my running playlist comes ‘Zorba the Greek’ performed by the ‘Flying Dutchman’ – Andre Rieu. That’s right, quite possibly the worst song that could ever appear on a running playlist, it’s ridiculous. The song is wonderful of course…if you’re sat in a little Greek taverna supping red wine and eating moussaka. However, when you’re desperately attempting to establish some flow and rhythm in the early stages of a run it’s a complete nightmare! The fact is though I can’t delete it; because you see, what I have noticed is despite it completely ruining my stride and breathing, it makes me smile, pure and simple. At a make or break point when I’m usually on the cusp of succumbing to the heat and a complete lack of willpower, it pushes me on by actually making me take the run a little less seriously and diverting my thoughts away from the struggle.
Other songs interspersed on my running playlist, which also perform this task (but also confirm my weirdness) include ‘Ra Ra Rasputin’ by Boney M, ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners, ‘What is Love’ by Haddaway, ‘Delilah’ by Tom Jones, and ‘Surfin’ USA’ by the Beach Boys. I should be chronically embarrassed by all this, but sometimes I think you get to a point in your life when it’s too late for that…especially when the whiteness of my legs is a far more obvious and immediate embarrassment when running in the park here. I’m officially the man who cannot tan.
2. Fellow Runners
I hadn’t realised how important it is to have fellow pavement pounders around me when I run. There was a day a few weeks back here in Georgetown when the heavens opened and the wind whipped in over the seawall into the park. I decided to run anyway given that it at last seemed the perfect temperature for exercise. Upon arrival I found the park to be empty, not a single soul visible. I scoffed a little at the fair-weather attitude of the other park-goers and felt a little smug that I was there, laughing in the face of the wind and rain. Two laps in and the laughter had gone, the smugness had slinked away through the gate, and I was struggling severely with motivation. I soon realised that it was because I was not surrounded by other runners. I had no inspiration, no one to compete against, and essentially no one to drive me on. Not even Zorba the Greek or Boney M could propel me this time.
I struggled through the run and that evening I thought about just why it had been such a battle in the empty park. It may sound ridiculous, but I concluded that in the previous weeks I had gained a very certain familiarity with not just the park, but even more crucially its regular visitors. Running lap after lap is a monotonous and sterile exercise. However, the faces you pass make it interesting. They become familiar, and thus, reassuring. You begin to reason that surely if other people are doing this it must be logical.
Then there’s the facial expressions and gestures which become commonplace. There are several fellow runners who over the course of the past few weeks have developed from complete strangers to several different stages of relationship (in this order),
2. Timid grinners
3. Broad smilers
4. Timid grin head nodders
5. Broad smile head nodders
6. Broad smile, head nod and eye rollers (in a manner which evokes the emotion ‘here we are again!’)
7. Tennis invites (the other day a man invited me to play tennis with him!)
During one run I was stopped mid lap and asked if I wanted to join a group of people for a beer and some freshly baked fish, and another day I was stopped by a very friendly and interesting American chap who completely ruined my run, but had some great tales about his life in Africa. I’ve even on a couple of occasions seen fellow runners outside of the park going about their normal lives, and we’ve struck up conversation. It always begins with confused looks at each other and then it clicks – we know each other from the park. I had wondered if one day I’d meet my future wife during one of my runs, but soon reminded of the whiteness of my legs, I let this ambition fade!
Despite running very regularly for almost 3 months now, it still presents an up and down journey of mental torment. Some days the run flows by in a breeze, other days I vow never to go again. One day I don’t think I ate enough and literally thought I was going mad as I felt light-headed and almost as if I wasn’t quite there mentally! However, on most occasions now I am able to transform the endless monotony of the continuous laps into an almost peaceful content monotony. It does also help a great deal that the park is a picturesque location, as hopefully the accompanying photos testify.
I always walk home from the park to warm down and it’s at these moments I feel at my most positive at any point during the day, which does prove (to me at least) that exercise can have such a decisive effect on your mental wellbeing.
The title of this blog post is a song by Kula Shaker, which incidentally is not on my playlist, but I feel it sums up my relationship with running perfectly.
If I were an actual writer you could potentially describe what I’m currently experiencing as ‘writer’s block.’ Ever since arriving in Guyana I’ve felt a nagging pressure to put into words this whole new experience. Each day that passes the burden and anxiety mounts, yet nothing comes into my head, regardless of the internal frustration, which I imagine is much of the problem. This is absolutely no reflection on Guyana. There’s so much to write about, I just haven’t thus far found an angle by which to present this in my own words. In previous blogs a subject matter has frequently revealed itself through one single event, or a series of corresponding events which follow a common theme. In most cases these smack me bang in the face, and from the ensuing concussion I dizzily fumble words onto the page and a blog is born.
I was recently questioned about why I write and directed towards three articles which discussed the very theme. I am not really a writer. I just happen to write a regular-ish blog, which fortunately for me, some people read. However, the three quotes below stood out in each of the articles.
“I write because it is a habit, a passion.” Orhan Pamuk (Nobel Prize for Literature, 2006)
“Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death.” George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’ (1946)
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Joan Didion, ‘Why I Write’ (1976)
My continuing desire to blog stems in part from a jumbled concoction of the quotes above. With that in mind I have decided to resume on a theme that gave me great writing pleasure in my previous post. A theme that is a constant in many of our lives. Personally I know that if deprived of this I’d lose direction almost immediately and sometimes when I have lost direction it has grasped me by the scruff of the neck and hauled me back. The theme is music, and in the spirit of George Orwell’s frank admission of writing for pure egotistical purposes, I’m going to present my personal song of choice from each decade for the past fifty years. I often find myself at a loss when people pose that very simple question, “What kind of music are you into?” For some reason all I ever offer in response is a rather awkward and frustratingly vague, “Erm, it’s hard to say…I’m into weird music!” It’s not weird at all, it’s just not particularly ‘mainstream’ much of the time, and it’s difficult to pin it down to one main genre. So here goes, in what seems like an almost impossible task, I will chose one song (and a couple of runners up) from each decade (60s to 00s) in order to offer a window into my musical mind.
I’ll begin with my favourite melodic decade of all, the 60s. The quality of the music written and recorded in the years defined by peace, love, and intense anti-war protests has always drawn me in. I remember hearing ‘You Really Got Me’ by the Kinks at the age of 10 and was a little shell-shocked. Ever since then I’ve gradually become further intrigued by that period. It was a defining era for so many reasons, and musical creativity and innovation was an integral part of it. Many of my favourite artists emerged in the second half of the decade – Love, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, The Turtles, The Mamas and Papas, The Zombies, Left Banke, Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull, a fresh-faced David Bowie, The Doors, Cliff Richard (wait…what??!!), Steppenwolf, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Moody Blues, The Yardbirds, Sandie Shaw, The Searchers, Joe Brown, The Amen Corner, Billy J. Kramer, Nick Drake, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, etc, etc. The list goes on and on and deeper underground as I have explored further.
Though, there is one band as yet unmentioned who wrote a song that epitomizes the 60s quite perfectly. Infectiously quirky and unique, this composition undoubtedly had the authorities probing the moral fabric of its lyrics and the message it conveyed upon the impressionable youth of the day. With a characteristically English spirit and humour, it has stood the test of time, remaining as fresh sounding now as it did when it first hit the airwaves in 1967. Of course, these are purely my own personal opinions, but in my mind the lyrics evoke such strong images of a mystical and magical England, it is hard not to be drawn in.
“Over bridge of sighs/ To rest my eyes in shades of green/ Under dreaming spires/ To Itchycoo Park that’s where I’ve been.”
It also contains the line I’ve used as the title for this blog, which I think says all that needs to be said when describing this song. Steve Marriot and Ronnie Lane were such bold songwriters. They are vastly underrated, far too frequently overshadowed by the likes of Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Page/Plant, Townshend/Daltrey, and Waters/Gilmour during a golden period of incredible composers and lyricists. In my view, they are right up there with the best. Now, I know I wrote in my last blog about ‘You Set The Scene’, which I stated as being my favourite song of all time, thus meaning it should technically also be my song of choice from the 60s. For the sake of keeping things fresh though I’ve decided to keep it separate from this exercise! Therefore, my song of the 1960s is;
Itchycoo Park – Small Faces (1967)
This was an almost impossible choice with countless songs vying for the crown. My two runners up are as follows,
This song epitomises the ‘psychedelic 60s’ for me. Bizarre lyrics, the swirling sounds of an organ, and terrific vocal harmonies.
From 1967 once again, this song was written by one of Britain’s finest – Ray Davies. Another artist who in my humble opinion has never quite received the acknowledgement he’s due. I’d place him right up there with Lennon and McCartney for song-writing genius. Waterloo Sunset is such a classic, and it really reflects Davies’ deep appreciation and endless love affair with London. This performance is from Glastonbury 2010.
This is another very difficult decade to define in just one song. However, it didn’t take long to know which to select. In fact it was obvious to me almost instantly. This song was written as an ode to a novel, which also happens to be one of my favourites. Set on the desolate Yorkshire Moors in the 18th century, this novel tells a particularly dark, psychological tale of love, hate, death, jealousy, and obsession. What is so striking is that it tackled issues which were rarely (if ever) presented so starkly at the time of its publication in 1847. Critics wrote of their shock and condemnation of the subject matter. Yet, it’s now deservedly considered a classic, and in acknowledgment of the author, Emily Brontë, Kate Bush produced her own masterpiece, and in my view, the song of the decade. Wuthering Heights was released in early 1978, and Bush wrote it aged just eighteen. It captures the emotion of the book and its main characters quite perfectly. It is also incredibly haunting, and I don’t think there was anyone else more suited to writing and performing this than Kate Bush, with her piercing voice and eccentric delivery. Also, the video is epic, in a kind of creepy way!
Wuthering Heights – Kate Bush (1978)
I love David Bowie, and not purely because we share the same freaky eyes. I actually favour much of his 60s material, but Starman is just classic Bowie – weird and wonderful, and as the great man says himself, “Hey! That’s far out.”
Folk music is something I’ve explored a lot more extensively in recent years and Jethro Tull are a band that do it well. Ian Anderson plays the flute with sheer comedic brilliance. I was lucky enough to see them live in Prague in 2009 and it’s a gig I won’t forget. Songs from the Wood is a veritable blend of melodious vocals, jazz flute, church-like organ, and heavy guitar, accompanied by lyrics that J.R.R. Tolkien may have written, had he been inclined to create a folk-rock band!
Despite being a child of the 80s, I feel like this decade is the one that has me puzzled most. I fear the 80s in many ways. The crazy fashion, the hair…the big hair, the use of synthesizers, a Britain dogged by unemployment and strikes, the excess of accessories, football hooligans, Tron (the original), Robert Mugabe, people wearing one bright pink sock and one bright yellow sock, etc, etc. All in all it’s a decade that hasn’t ever really made a great impact in my collection of music. However, that’s not to say there weren’t some notable successes. So here goes.
My number one is by a band far more commonly known for a song they wrote that is guaranteed to be on the playlist of any classic wedding, cheesy nightclub, 50th birthday party, karaoke night, school reunion/disco, and all official meetings of the ‘World Dungaree-Wearing Appreciation Society’. The song I have chosen is NOT Come on Eileen, but it was written by the same band.
Dexy’s Midnight Runners released this in 1980, and it took them to number one. It’s bold, brash, and brimming with energy – helped in the main by Kevin Rowland’s distinctive voice, the stomping beat, and the backing brass of saxophone and trombones. And so, for the 1980s, I present to you,
Geno – Dexy’s Midnight Runners (1980)
I love the freshness of this song. It’s quintessentially 80s, yet it seems to somehow bridge decades and wouldn’t sound out of place if played in any of the past fifty years. The emotion in Lloyd Cole’s voice makes it compelling listening, and it also has fantastic lyrics,
“She looks like eve marie saint in on the waterfront/ As she reads simone de beauvoir in her american circumstance/ Her heart’s like crazy paving/ Upside down and back to front/ She says ooh, it’s so hard to love/ When love was your great disappointment.”
Awesome tempo, wonderfully brilliant lyrics (which intrigue and baffle in equal measure) delivered in some kind of freestyle rap mantra, and all this brought to listeners by a truly great band.
The 90s is another fairly tricky decade to reduce to just one main song. Britpop was magic and it heralded the emergence of some truly great artists and songs. However, one of my favourite bands emerged midway through, and unleashed their contemporary take on psychedelic rock to the world…with quite divisive results. Fronted by Crispian Mills (son of Haley and grandson of Sir John) Kula Shaker is a band that quite frankly some people love to hate. But not me. In my mind they took the 60s and redelivered it in a revolutionary explosion of sitars, Hammond organ, gritty guitar riffs, and poetic lyrics. I could’ve chosen any one of about fifteen songs to crown as my 90s song of choice, but there was one which just stood out above the rest. It’s essentially Kula Shaker’s anthem. This live performance is psychedelically marvellous!
Govinda – Kula Shaker (1996)
There’s not much you can say about this. It’s just Britpop at its best, in a cockney knees-up kind of way. Phil Daniels’ narration is perfect, the video is full of humour, and it always makes me laugh when people mention the Oasis vs. Blur debate. What debate?
Another of Britpop’s finest, Supergrass released this in 1995. I won’t bore you with another long-winded explanation; suffice to say this song is fun, end of.
In keeping with most of this blog post, it has been a painful experience trying to reduce a decade to just one tune. My brain is now exhausted as it has reached the final stretch in musical deliberation that has spanned fifty years! However, I’ve reached the 00s and there’s a band that emerged during the middle of the decade who have restored my faith in great song writing. Built around incredible compositions incorporating a range of instruments (trumpet, flugelhorn, ukulele, saxophone, violin, trombone, tuba, glockenspiel, etc, etc) a myriad of cultural influences, and wholehearted lyrics, Beirut have quickly become one of my favourite bands. Again, it’s difficult choosing just one song, but this is the task I set myself, and thus it has to be The Shrew. Largely because of this live performance. With Beirut you can really see how much the music means to them. X Factor take note. This is real music (yes I’m a ‘music snob’ sometimes).
The Shrew – Beirut (2009)
Gogol Bordello have had a huge influence on my playlist in recent years. Describing themselves as ‘Gypsy Punks’ they hail from New York, but are an eclectic mix of nationalities with band members from Russia, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Israel, the US, and Romania. They are all led by the Pied Piper of Gypsy Punk, Ukrainian Eugene Hütz. Sporting the best moustache in the music industry, he is quite simply, the man. I’ve seen Gogol Bordello live three times and they probably rank as the best I’ve ever seen. They also set me on the path of exploring Eastern European/gypsy folk music and this has been a revelation. American Wedding is a textbook example of what they’re all about – energetic, in your face, chaotic music that sounds as if it could light the fire of revolution at any point. Super Taranta!
One of the greatest attributes of music is that it often has the ability to catapult us back in time, inducing vivid recollections of a certain moment or period from our past. The Libertines are a band that provided the soundtrack to my first year at university. They burst onto the scene in 2002 offering high tempo rock and roll with a bit of punk thrown in. I was practically awestruck by them. Clad in leather jackets (or occasionally British Redcoat tunics) they were in my mind the coolest guys on earth. Just two months after arriving at university I attended my first ever live gig at Nottingham Rock City. It was the Libertines, and as I stood there in a sea of bodies, engulfed in the aroma of sweat, cigarettes, beer, and testosterone whilst being thrown around all over the place, I suddenly thought, “Wow…so this is university.” Hence this band will always hold a special place in my heart as they provided the music to a crucial point in my life. What A Waster has always been my favourite song of theirs. Warning: If you click the link above and listen be warned that one or two of the lyrics are ‘charged’.
So there you have it. Fifteen songs that offer a little insight into my ‘tastes’ in music. There are so many other artists and songs I could’ve mentioned, but alas, that will have to wait until another time. Feel free to scoff at my choices or to vehemently disagree. I welcome all feedback and would love to hear your own personal choices.
I’ll close with a couple of embarrassing facts, which may lead you to conclude that I don’t have any taste in music anyway;
First music single I ever bought: Oh Carolina – Shaggy (1993)
First album I ever bought: Happy Nation/The Sign – Ace of Base (1993)
Most embarrassing song on my running playlist: Delilah – Tom Jones (1968)
Most embarrassing song in my itunes top 25 played list: Chiquititta – Abba (1979)
Most embarrassing purchase ever: Green Man – Mark Owen (1996)
Artist in my library that you’d least expect: Dizzee Rascal