The Consolation of Solitary Sports

transcript, with some slides, of a talk for University Mental Health Awareness Day – there is a full video, including questions, here. You can download a pdf of the words here. Many thanks to Verity for permission to reproduce her words and her photos.

The Consolation of Solitary Sports

Dan Holloway and Verity Westgate

 lunch-talk

Introduction

It is somewhere between midnight and 1. It is three hours since I watched the last streaks of daylight disappear and it will be three hours more before I see them again. I have just a bubble of light a few feet wide in which every moth on the Ridgeway has come to join me. On the horizon maybe I make out the glow of a floodlight and the hum of a generator marking one of the tiny occasional outposts that provide warm tea, cold, flat coke, and a miniature cornucopia of sugary salty goodness before I disappear back into the night.

I have been running for around 16 hours. I will be running for several more. When the hedgerows clear and the perspective is right I may see the occasional torch in the distance. More often, on the soft summer breeze I hear a rustle. Not so long ago water drenched desperate burning bodies and buffs and bags were deployed as futile shields, but after dark in July the temperature falls away like a cliff and those who ditched all but vests by day struggle, as running turns to a slow walk, to retain any warmth they can with foil blankets that provide the only reminder that hundreds of shredded bodies stretch over tens of miles.

Every time my feet hit the ground, pain shoots across the sole and up the side of my calf. At least one toenail is loose, and much of the skin is rubbed raw. I am so utterly exhausted my mind has stopped wandering anywhere but the footfall in front of me and the struggle on the rutted rounded path to stay upright, not from fear of injury but because the effort of hauling myself up from one more fall is more effort than my muscles can bear.

It is at this moment I begin to sob. Loudly and uncontrollably. Not from the pain; not from the despair; but because for one of the only times in years I realise I am, in this moment, truly and absolutely happy.

2015-rtts

Context

Exercise and mental health are regular bedfellows in our conversations. But if we treat their relationship too glibly, we can end in some uncomfortable places. So it is important to begin by explaining very briefly what I am not going to say.

The most obvious preface is to point out the obvious. I may have bipolar disorder, but in other ways I am very lucky. Despite appearances, my physical health is extremely robust. I can throw things at my body and my body will take it. Many people cannot. And while, yes, there are many ways of incorporating cardiovascular exercise into one’s life, many people are not as fortunate as I am. For that, as well as the fact that it’s never a good thing to do, shaming those who cannot exercise, or those who can but for whom many of the activities I will talk about today are out of reach, is not acceptable.

That is why I will not be saying, today or at any other time I should hope, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” You can’t. The implication behind the statement is not inspirational but shaming and mean spirited. I would much rather say that what sports like ultramarathonning in particular can teach you is that that you can often do things you never thought you could. And that will do me fine.

Second, exercise is great. The great outdoors is super fabulous great. But many of you may have seen this meme online [picture of forest with caption “this is an antidepressant” and of pills with caption “this is shit”]

And that is neither super nor fabulous nor great. Which is why, thankfully, there are also many more balanced counters. [picture of forest with caption “this is a forest (useful if you are having a bad day)”, and pills with caption “This is medicine (useful if you have an illness)”

I will not be shaming anyone who cannot exercise. Nor will I be shaming anyone who needs to take medication.

Bad at Games

At school I was bad at games. I wasn’t just bad at games, I hated sport. As far back as I can remember, sport and mental health went together for me. But in those early days the relationship was negative on every level.

I was always different. I was terrified of the other kids at school. They were like alien beings. I had no idea how they functioned, just that their purpose in life seemed to be to make my life hell. And the more different I was, a difference increasingly built on anxiety, depression, ritualistic tics, and outrageous behaviours that seem, looking back, to be the early markers of what would later become manic episodes, the worse it got.

rtts-2016-finish

PE and games increasingly became opportunities for other children in my year to use physical activity as a mask for deliberate acts of violence. Teachers’ eyes couldn’t be everywhere. Though sometimes, because in this world I didn’t understand sport seemed to matter – desperately – often it was less a case of bullying slipping under the radar and more a case of games teachers steeped in some kind of Darwinian machismo seeing a rewarding humour in this relentless pursuit.

Because I was so miserable, I never paid any attention to the actual sport. Combine that with an increasing tendency towards comfort eating in an effort to find some, any kind of relief, and my performance suffered more, I was even more the cause of embarrassment for the teams who got lumbered with me, even more an object of humiliation.

But even through this, there was something I could not quite let go of about running around outside. More specifically, running around in deserted outside places on my own. At weekends my parents would take me to the Forest of Dean and I would dart into the trees and lose myself for hours. In the summers I would wander out of town to the scrub of semi fields and the dilapidated concrete and brickwork of bridges and warehouses and drainage systems, and create worlds in which I could lose myself completely.

There was something about being outside, moving, far away from people, that felt, more than anything, like home. But as my mental health worsened, that world was lost.

When I came to Oxford, I managed assiduously to avoid all forms of exercise. It was more than a decade after leaving school that I found myself, starting my DPhil, living in Linacre where one night I stumbled, by accident, into the basement where I discovered a 24 hour gym. I sat down, in my jeans and shirt, on the indoor rowing machine and started pulling.

The response was almost instantaneous. Although bouts of ill health meant that my progress stopped and started for the next decade and more, I knew straightaway I had found something almost magical, even if at that stage I had no idea what the magic was.

Fast forward again to 2013, and although a series of episodes of severe mental ill health had left me 19 stone and inactive, the connection I had made on the erg that night had never gone away. When I went for my 40 plus check up at the GP to discover that – I told you I was lucky – my heart, my cholesterol, and my blood sugar were all right in the middle of the healthy range, that was all I needed. I asked my GP if there were limits to what could do. No, she said. I asked if she was sure. Yes, she was sure. Even if I exercise really hard, I asked. Yes, even if I exercised really hard.

9 months later, I rowed 108 kilometres on the indoor rower at the University Club, and a year after that I completed my first 100 kilometre ultramarathon run.

What running, and indoor rowing before that, has done is bypassed the horrors of the sportsfield, the association of exercise with teams of which I could never be a part, with a world that is strange and frightening. It has reconnected me instead to the young child inventing his own world in forests made of wood and concrete.

Flow

Not only has running reconnected me with a world in which I can feel at home and so a refuge from the world in which I live the rest of the time which is confusing, exhausting, and full of people who, however well-intentioned, will never quite understand.

godstow

There is something – or rather there are two things – about the actual physical act of running that are transformative in very similar but very different ways.

When you strip it down to its basics, running is one of the simplest things you can do. You might adjust a little on the hills, but essentially every step you take is like every other. At first, it won’t feel like that. For the first month, every time I ran my feet screamed, my legs begged no and my chest half collapsed under the weight of its own wheezing. And when I say “ran” I mean about 100 metres of very slow foot dragging. Every step felt very different from the one that had preceded it – in the sense that the pain had ramped itself up another level of magnitude. But after a couple of months something happened. I started not to notice time passing. I would look around and realise I was somewhere completely different from where I had been the last time I looked. What was happening was almost like alchemy. That simple, unconscious action of putting one foot in front of the other was taking care of all the physical irritations and distractions and anxiety inducements of life, and my mind, no longer playing games of dare with itself, was free to wander.

And there are also times where the opposite is true. In running this can come on a steep rocky trail, a particularly muddy path, or just when your legs hurt so much you can barely bring yourself to let your foot touch the ground. And it’s there all the time in a sport like parkour, when you are learning to jump, fall, grip and hang in ways you would have though impossible. These are the times when what you are doing requires your attention to such an extent that it is literally impossible to think about anything else.

The need for no concentration at all, and the need for total concentration have the same effect, that of losing yourself completely in flow.

 

And some other perspectives on sport and mental health

The running world, in particular the world of extreme endurance, furnishes us with stories similar to mine at every level, right to the very top of the sport.

I guess it should come as no surprise that a sport where events often take in excess of 24 hours without a break with training schedules to match should contain a number of former substance addicts in its top ranks. Timothy Olsen, like so many, began drinking and taking drugs to self-medicate his depression. And like so many he woke up one day, an addict, realising they had made his mental health so much worse. When one of his friends and fellow users committed suicide, Olsen joined a running group in an effort to get clean. A handful of years later, before his 30th birthday, he won the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon, the Western States, a 100 mile race that includes more than 5 kilometres of elevation gain, in a mind boggling record time of 14 hours and 46 minutes.

Last summer, a number of athletes took part in The Icebreaker Run, taking them right across America on foot, running under the simple and familiar banner “Beat the Stigma.” The most vocal of the group was ultra running legend Catra Corbett, who chalks up a 50 or 100 mile race most weekends and is most widely known in ultra running circles, and increasingly outside of them, for running everywhere with her pet rescue dachshund Tru-Man.

Corbett, who at 51 has now been sober for 21 years, has found, like Olsen, the long intense periods of solitary endeavour have been key to the battle with substance addiction.

It is not just addiction that is found among endurance runners. One of the world’s most celebrated athletes, New Zealand’s Anna Frost, is open about her battles with depression, and has become an ambassador for mental health and the promotion of positive role models for women through the wonderful global initiative Sisu Girls.

And of course, just last year, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year’s Helen Rollason Award for outstanding achievement went to Ben Smith, whose mental health had suffered after homophobic bullying at school, who ran 401 marathons in 401 days to support Kidscape and Stonewall.

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Verity Westgate on open water swimming

I took up Openwater swimming in 2009 when I entered a one mile swim in the lake district to raise money for charity.  I had been a twice a week, forty lengths head up breastroke swimmer, since leaving university, so swimming itself was not alien to me, but I had never swum out of doors before.  Taking part in this event proved quite a defining moment for the things I would do in the next 8 years and in adding a really key tool for managing my recurrent depression.  There has been a huge rise in the number of people doing openwater swimming in the UK over the last few years and the benefits to mental health are often cited.

windermere-2015-two-way

I’d like to start by reading a few lines from a book called Waterlog by Roger Deakin which describes a journey of swimming around the British Isles

“When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it….when you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens.  Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world…you see and experience things when you are swimming in a way that is completely different from any other…Natural water has always held the magical power to cure.  Somehow or other it transmits its own self-regenerating powers to the swimmer”.

Why swimming for me?

Swimming is different from running in that there is more sensory deprivation; you can’t really see very far around you if your head is out, if your head is in the water, you might not be able to see more than a few cms away.  But at the same time, the senses that you have are more intense.  You feel the temperature of the water

thames-2016

Like running, the repetitive action of swimming is very soothing.  You get into a rhythm, repeating your strokes over and over again.  And as you focus on this, and the feeling and sound of the water, eventually, you can start to still your mind.  I get into the water and my mind is busy; as I swim, my brain starts to solve problems lurking in my subconscious; if I keep going long enough, my mind no longer starts to wander but achieves a stillness where all that matters is the feeling of the water and the sound it makes as I move through it.

Over the years, I have completed a number of increasingly long “marathon” swims, culminating in a two-way Windermere swim in 2015 where I swam down the lake and then back up again for a total of 21 miles.  So besides the beneficial nature of swimming itself, I find having a goal and a sense of purpose very helpful for my mental health.  It anchors swimming as an important part of my daily routine providing a small sense of achievement even when my mood is low.

Where to go?

My favourite location has to be the Lake District as there are so many watery spaces with different characters and amazing scenery.  Many areas are remarkably unspoilt and you can get a whole lake to yourself if you are lucky!

Around Oxford, most obvious location is the Thames.  The Open Water Swimming Society have a Wild Swim map which will give you some ideas of where to head, and not just in Oxford, but all around the country.  The Outdoor Swimming Society website also has information about how to swim outside safely.

Swimming in the sea is a totally different sensory experience, but there is something rather lovely about being buffeted by waves whilst you are swimming.

And if you don’t feel brave enough to take on a wild swim, simply swimming in an outdoor pool feels quite different to swimming indoors, almost like a mini holiday where you are surrounded by fresh air.  Hinksey Outdoor Pool, down the Abingdon Road, and open during the summer months, is a lovely place to go, especially on an overcast day when it is not too busy!

 

 

Being outside as a way to be an outsider

I want to use the last part of this talk, as the slides take you on a tour of some of Oxford’s wonderful spaces, by going beyond the “get out and be inspired” clichés into which it would be so easy to fall.

I want to put forward two very simple propositions that on the one hand offer reasons why this kind of physical activity seems to have such a profound effect on mental health and on the other furnish us with reasons to explore extreme sports that take away the whiff of the boot camp that can be so debilitating:

  • Being outside gives us a way of being an outsider
  • Extreme sports are less about exercise or fitness and more about finding a unique vantage point from which to view the world in which we find ourselves

Many of us who have experienced periods of mental ill health will also have experienced, connected in one way or another to that ill health, life as outsiders, feeling we don’t belong, ostracised by stigma or anxiety or expectation or simply the refusal of our neurology to cooperate with what society demands of it, convinced, as the title of Milan Kundera’s work puts it so poetically, that Life is Elsewhere.

at teh stones (albeit on a training run)

at teh stones (albeit on a training run)

The world we find ourselves in is changing, and in many respects, for those of us with the often complex needs that accompany mental ill health, those changes are for the better. But the changes we need in order to function in the world in ways many of our colleagues would recognise as “normal” remain in many respects distant prospects.

And so we find ourselves constantly reminded that we are outsiders. In places like this, especially, our otherness can feel as though it is always in the foreground. Casual conversation with colleagues who seem, intuitively, to know what to say, the expectation that a cheery demeanour is part of our job description, the well meaning yet gaslighting reassurances from colleagues that in 7th week “we get tired too”. All of these and so many more require us constantly to use energy we do not have to conform ourselves to a world that will not use the energy it does have to accommodate us.

What I have found in endurance running is a place where I do not have to try and be on the inside. I’ve also learned something I never expected about the impact decades of mental ill health has had on me. As always, this is my experience, it may not be yours, but I have encountered it elsewhere in the ultra community. It’s there in a certain look when a mountain looms and the legs are shot and there is as far yet to run as you have already been. It was the look on my wife’s face when she tore her thigh muscle after 40 kilometres of a 100 kilometre race, got the medics to tape her up, and completed the last 60 kilometres despite being barely able to walk.

ann

It’s a look that turns conventional running wisdom on its head. The key to running long distances, group after group, column after column, will tell you, is to train your mind to believe. Your body can go the distance if only your mind doesn’t win with its constant cries to stop. For some of us at least who have spent decades using every weapon in our mental army just to resist the desire not to be alive, or to stay clean and sober, that resilience is already there, and it makes us uniquely suited to feats of extreme endurance. Making yourself keep going for 20, 30, 50 kilometres more when your body screams no – compared to facing the world on your darkest days, that’s nothing. The problem comes with the finishing line, with the inevitable return to a world in which your mind once again begs you no.

The beauty of solitary sport is that there are no rules or pressures or expectations or demands upon you – even the demand to be competent! There is only the world you create according to your own needs and desires. Where a neurotypical world might see loneliness, for many of us there is a beautiful liberation, a freedom from the need to try and construct a version of yourself for social consumption. You can just be an outsider. The trails don’t care.

 

Flexibility and fun

The joy of solitary sport is that you can make it what you want. Many people who take up exercise say the value of being in a group is that they feel an accountability. Their peers are the reason they still go out on the days they really don’t feel like it but know that they should. Whatever “should” means. Anyone who has anxiety in any form, let alone social or communication issues, might, of course, experience that in a slightly different way. For many of us the cocktail of guilt and fear, or simply having to handle coping with the complexity of being with people, far from being the thing that gets us out of the door can be the thing that keeps us inside.

Shedding that whole layer of expectation and pressure can be remarkably liberating. Why the assumption we need that kind of motivation? Those of us with mental health issues spend enough of our lives trying to educate people out of the myth that we are fundamentally lazy left to our own devices will settle into an equilibrium of inactivity through some kind of volition. We need to make sure we’re not buying into those myths ourselves.

maths-institute

And that brings me to my final point, which is that we are familiar with the sticks used to beat us – by the media, family, shops, workplaces. We need to quit using shaming to get us to do something as wonderful as exercise. Forget “I ought to lose weight” or “I need to be fit” or “I have to counter the side effects of my meds.”

The simple thing of it is that these sports are amazing because they give you an entirely new perspective on the environment you inhabit every day.

Literally a new perspective. Whether you are following the practice of parkour to look up and around to find new paths and discovering the joys of Oxford’s roofline, exploring snickleways and paths, seeing the city from the waterline, or simply experiencing its passing at a different speed, solitary sports transport you to a myriad parallel worlds that you don’t have to go anywhere to be able to explore.

 

 

 

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Into the Unknown

friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is one of the few works of art we can call iconic in both the figurative and the literal sense. The divine spirit of progress brought down from a Hellenic-Germanic pantheon and made almost flesh, we see its likeness everywhere from the “hero shots” of anonymous urban explorers to the silhouetted figures on the covers of thrillers to Stephen Hawking in his splendid solitude on the cover of A Brief History of Time.

As a society, we are having to do a lot of processing of deaths we find problematic at the moment. The arguments about the tears shed for Bowie are inevitable. So, too, are the arguments that will follow the death of explorer Henry Worsley, where the questions will be “why?” and “how could he?” (I will leave aside here the not so subtle sexism that accompanies the death of extreme adventurers, which outs itself in the order of the questions – were this Henrietta Worsley, “Howe could she?” would surely have preceded “why?”).

What I want to argue here (and thanks due to the poet Judi Sutherland whose questions sent me down this line) is that just as Bowie and Worsley are, essentially, the same, and Friedrich’s wanderer stands for the pursuit of intellectual perfection as much as the quest through physical peril, so extreme sports and Modernism are alternative manifestations of the same urge.

I’ve pondered at length on extreme physical endeavour before, most notably when musing on the fact that so many  of the most instantly recognisable practitioners in different fields (David Belle and Sebastien Foucan in parkour, Alain Robert in climbing, tightrope walker Philippe Petit, and one of the main figures of my childhood, Jacques Cousteau) are French, but what has become clearer this past day is just how entwined the intellectual and the physical are. It is more than simply that these physical outlets are manifestations of a spiritual outlook (though they are).

Modernism within the arts combines two essential features that the Wanderer represents – the need to push at the limits of definition; and the belief that such exploration is possible. Woolf, Schoenberg, Joyce, Picasso – each has taken an artform and addressed it with a certainty that, in our Postmodern times in which we know where railroad tracks disappearing over the horizon ultimately take us, epitomises arrogance and egoism, declaring, “This is not all there is. It cannot be. It will not be.” And each proceeded to demonstrate that they were, indeed, right. This is exactly the kind of certainty that drove the rise of the manifesto – we can do more, but only if we do this! The creative intellect was there to be stretched to its breaking point and rebuilt better.

And extreme sport meets the physical landscape with exactly the same certainties. I can do more than this, proclaims the base jumper, ultra runner, free diver. Climber. And they make it happen by an act of what seems to be pure will. This is the same arrogant offspring of Romanticism (the relation to nature in both is fascinating but a subject for another day) that gave us Modernism.

This parallel genealogy is interesting but the real point of it is this. My sense is that our ambivalence towards extreme physical endeavour is borne of the same suspicion that makes society inimical to Modernism, suspicious of intellectual endeavour and openly hostile to the manifesto. And that antipathy goes back to the common root. To Romanticism. Romanticism is where we find the seeds of an ideological architecture that is hard to defend – it stands for a form of progress that easily aligns itself with supremacism, it stands for binaries, it stands for a belief in the kind of betterment that means the inexorable spreading of the strong at the expense of the weak. It is exactly the metanarrative that needs deconstructing.

It is this need for a deconstruction of Romanticism which has made me avoid using the term exploration. Explorers are, just as the Wanderer is, the embodiment of Romanticism. They stand for those things I outlined above that objectify and homogenise and perpetuate the notion that there is something external to us (and by us I mean largely Western white males) that needs to be brought within our compass and mapped to our coordinates.

But Modernism goes beyond this. Modernism seeks not to break something external to us beneath our will. It seeks rather to break the very notion of the self, to ask what more each human being can be. And in this we are brought back to parkour and the philosophy of the free climber and endurance runner whose arrogance is not the arrogance of egoism but the arrogance of one who knows that humanity has to be something more than it is and is prepared to break themselves to bring that about.

My feeling is that the same anti-intellectualism that laughs of Modernist efforts to make the novel do more, to break the poetic form or change the way we construct narrative is the same force that shudders not in disbelief at the why of the extreme adventurer but in fear. A fear driven not in the face of privilege but in preservation of it. A fear driven by a deep seated wish that humanity doesn’t attempt to be something more because being just what it is suits people just fine. And against that fear adventurers of the mind and the body are always needed, pushing themselves to do what the comfortable classes find unacceptable.

**

Click here to get involved in the project I am running with Ceri Lloyd to examine the role of the manifesto in contemporary culture.

Opening Doors Inwards and Going Outside: Writing v. Parkour

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience of endurance rowing training, and the effect it has on my creative life. As I wrote, I found myself thinking about more and more of the creative people I know
(and those, most famously of course Haruki Murakami, about whom I know) who do something similar, training hard (I won’t indulge in transferene and say obsessively) at a particular kind of individual, repeetitive, non-competitive, endurance based physical activity. And I realised I really wanted to find out how it affected them.

And so I decided I’d love to have those people write for me about their experience. I am delighted to start with Lisa Scullard. Like many of my writing friends, I met Lisa on the writers’ site Authonomy about 5 years ago. We have since met in person several times and I have had the privilege of hosting her at a reading in Oxford. Lisa writes with the same flair and panache she shows for life, her deliciously devilish zombie tales an utter delight. She is the kind of person you come away from meeting feeling uplifted and inspired to go out and do more with yoru life. I am particularly delighted that the first piece in what I hope will become a series is about parkour, a pursuit I have loved watching for several years, whose philosophy of “always go forwards” fascinates and inspires me (I wrote about it here). Recently, I have started to research the parkour community more intensively in preparation for the novel I’ve been preparing for *far* too long and am now almost ready to start.

Over to Lisa.

Lisa on rings, Stonebarrow Manor 2009

It is possibly the knowledge that certain types of people won’t be there that means I appreciate training. It’s one of the reasons. If I was a man, it would be considered my ‘man-cave’ activity. Psychologically, it’s a neutral space for my brain to go into and focus on my own abilities, and find out if I’m making any personal progress. Free of the dependency of others on me.

My working day, as a self-employed editor and IT support, is full to the brim of clients’ needs and priorities. On those days, I am (among other things) a counsellor, formatter, publisher, a search engine, a dictionary, a thesaurus, an accountant, a researcher, a co-writer, plot brainstormer, PR manager, an address book, occasional driver, a dog placator, hardware engineer, software engineer, email wrangler, website designer, blog manager, video editor, screenplay editor, image editor, photographer, cover copy-writer, designer, historical advisor, current affairs advisor, social media manager, ebay/paypal attendant, press release drafter, and ‘celebrity’ career coach. For this small pittance, I also provide apparently ad hoc consultations on interior design, storage, medical issues, and the contents of the client’s fridge. Not to mention unlimited 24-hour support by email when in the comfort of my own home, watching Never Mind the Buzzcocks, while my daughter knits zombies and writes horror manga fan fiction through the night.

I decided a year ago that I wanted to have a physical outlet again, to re-establish my individual identity. My own sequels weren’t getting finished, and I kept being handed proofreading stuff and additional books that were outside of my interests ‘to take home and read’ on top of having done the same thing on site all day. I needed a bit of personal space. Rebuilding myself did take on a more literal form than I expected, though…

Today I had my first physio appointment. To get my erector spinae muscles fit and functioning again in my neck and upper back, I’ve been given a starter exercise which involves movement of less than two centimetres. I have to make sure the larger superficial muscles have a rest, which have been doing the job of holding my head up for the last 7 months, so that the deep muscles get stronger.

I do Parkour – officially for the last ten months, attending gymnastics classes. Enthusiastically, but not always well. My current progress should be described as ‘easy does it’. More on that in a second.

Unofficially, probably for most of my life, climbing playground equipment and hanging upside-down, as most kids back then did at the weekends before computers took over. Sometimes accidentally falling off buildings (saved by roof of stairwell, age 22), climbing up and jumping off abandoned lorry trailers in orchards (age 6), perhaps unwisely exploring a half-burnt-out block of flats with completely charred floorboards that I could see through to the inaccessible floor below (age 15), and seeing if I could cartwheel around the outside of Alexandra Palace at night all in black wearing a balaclava, and possibly with air-pistol and camera in pocket too, I always seemed to be carrying one around back then (I could, but only where accessible to do so – there was a nice long stretch of pavement on one side parallel to the road. Nobody came along. I was stopped on another occasion around then, only that time I was wearing perfectly innocent denim and with nothing more than a perfectly innocent skateboard, the reason being that I was using the skateboard in question at 4a.m. on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. Age 23).

Anyway. So far, in 2013 alone, having started formal training, I fractured my sacrum and tailbone in one fall (onto a beam) and my sternum and cervical vertebrae in another (I did an unsuccessful front flip, folded in half at the neck as I landed, and broke my sternum with my own head).

DIY brace for broken sternum, August 2013

It took a long time to diagnose and obtain the right x-rays and scans, as apparently folk with those injuries don’t usually get up again, let alone drive themselves home saying ‘ow’. Thanks to yoga practise from the age of three, my spine was more stretchy than most people’s, so for a while doctors convinced me that I was just bruised as they did not believe the fall could have involved that sort of impact. Over the following months, going back and forth for appointments with cardio-thoracic and spinal trauma consultants, it occurred to me that all of my bone-related injuries sustained in life have been sports-inflicted. Broken kneecap (steel pin still in situ) doing school high-jump aged 10. Blow to the side of the head with a cricket bat during non-stop cricket aged 14. Cracked wrist and collarbone doing martial arts. A few other small random prangs leading to untreated lumps and bumps or crunchiness for a few months – motorcycle, skateboard, quad-bike. And now ‘butt whiplash’ (as my daughter calls it) on the beam, an unfused sternomanubrial joint, rib and manubrium fracture, displacement and type III endplate and disc trauma of the cervical spine (neck) on the tumble track.

I’m definitely returning to individual form in that sense.

At school I was considered the slowest runner, the least sporty weed who was never picked for a team. From age 15 I was signed off sports altogether with Graves’ Disease, a thyroid condition that involves a sustained high resting heart rate, which made sports dangerous (mine resting was between 180-200 bpm). And yet, since leaving school and having had my thyroid removed age 19, I’ve done nothing but exercise. Besides writing to motivate my brain, yoga, martial arts, skateboarding, hula-hooping, and now Parkour are what motivate me to physically move. As a small child I had an extra-curricular ballet phase, and a horse-riding phase. As an adult, I also had phases including football, salsa, and basketball.

Sarah Bellum cover(go check out Lisa’s books here)

I have gym equipment placed randomly around my house, wherever there is a space to put it. I have just enough floor space to add a yoga mat when I want to stretch. My favourite spots are the twister disc under the coffee-table which I pull out and use in front of the TV, and the step-machine beside the worktop and small mirror where I brush my hair, from which I can also see the TV. Stepping enables me to improve the sciatic nerve signal lag in my left leg, an issue that accompanies other symptoms following my collection of spinal injuries from 2013.

Since giving up martial arts seven years ago (after twenty-two years of training on and off), I stick to non-competitive exercise. The challenge of Parkour is the available environment, whether that’s the gym, a playground, or the kitchen worktops (yes, I’ve used those!) and your own body’s experience and limitations. The challenge of writing in solitude is your own life experience and observations, whether incidental or through research.

While in a sport you learn to build a level of physical ability, it’s through writing attempts that theoretically, you should also learn the limits of your knowledge and improve them. But it’s not always the case, unless you have a qualified and canny editor looking over your shoulder, who is Googling the facts as you type. Gah… and I’m straight back to my job description again…

That’s one of my jobs in IT support that has become a sometimes alarming necessity – voluntarily checking the facts in true-life books by other authors before they unleash them as chapters or blog posts. I have to make the product ‘fit’ – in the context of physically able for the market it will face and audience it will have to stand up to. Something in a passage might strike me as unconvincing or unreliably obtained while I’m spellchecking and formatting, so I will have a sneaky look around online. Recently, the latitude of Moscow was nearly moved 165 miles south, in an anecdote about its supposed parallel location in the UK that the author had overheard from an unremembered source and was keen to share. I had to refuse the Moscow reference’s inclusion altogether, as the inaccuracy meant it could not be made relevant to the piece.

Without preparation and research in advance, a writer might only learn of their own suggestibility and gullibility if an expert on their chosen subject comes along with a scathing critical observation.

Meanwhile, a sportsman learns of their mistake the second they hit the ground.

Writers are by nature fantasists, at times of their own abilities, rather like some armchair sporting experts. Occasionally they believe they are imparting knowledge when their imagination has actually sneakily filled in the gaps for them, having drawn what is essentially an assumption. Or they have allowed someone else’s imagination to do so, and listened to a speculation fed to them as fact (sometimes second, third or fourth+ hand speculation) without checking it out thoroughly. In this sense, the main risk of a being a writer is of fooling yourself before anyone else.

Doing Parkour reminds me of the importance of dealing with what’s real and what’s in front of me. I’m a fiction author with a creative brain, and fiction-writing requires the ability to speculate at every turn to avoid becoming stale or stereotyped. But when facts are involved in any way, even small facts, I need to be aware of the difference between knowledge/experience, and long-held assumptions, in order to be the best writer I can be. Such as, have I ever looked up the meaning of that word I’m about to use? I’m about to put it into a piece of prose that might reach a worldwide audience. Could writing this particular thing down that I’m not fully confident about cause me to fall, metaphorically, on my butt?

Two days ago, reading a rom-com novel published by HarperCollins in 2011 and sold in good faith by Tesco, I learned that Rio is in Mexico. Who knew?! I hope for her sake the author hasn’t tried to book a holiday to her imaginary Mexican city… (HarperCollins, I want my money back!) There may well be various ‘Rios’ in Mexico, but it wasn’t the one that was implied in the passage I read. (In the same novel, a make-up artist was summoned with her powder-puff during a photo-shoot to ‘power the model’s boobs’ but I assume, in contrast to the relocation of Rio, that it was a typo rather than a research error on the alleged super-electrostatic abilities of make-up artists).

Lisa - early Parkour on Tenterden rec at night, 1995

In sports, you risk kidding yourself, taking on a new challenge or considering a new obstacle. Your eyes may be bigger than your stamina (or your muscles, or that gap between obstacles). But we learn the consequences through pain, very quickly. In my case, it motivates me to try and get fitter, to prepare more. After a motorcycle crash on my first day riding one when I was 19, I signed up for a year’s motorcycle mechanics course. Pain (and points on my licence, and everlasting guilt about the pedestrian’s broken leg) didn’t turn me into a quitter. It made me want to be more prepared and smarter than I was at the time.

Again, note – not in competition with others, or their knowledge or ability. I always aim to be smarter than my old self.

Writers don’t learn the fast way through pain, unless they have a particularly sadistic editor sitting nearby. (It might help). My constant reminders to author clients “Don’t assume facts” or worse “Don’t invent facts” even when I’m sitting right there, often fall on deaf ears (with very short attention spans* where criticism is involved) in the fertile imaginations of starry-eyed writers who are blinded by worlds of their own invention. Inaccurately outing celebrities as Christians comes to mind… I Googled for ages with no affiliation matches until the author saw a photograph online in front of me, and announced she had named the wrong actress/Christian she was thinking of altogether. The same author said to me yesterday ‘You know, Margaret Lockwood, red hair, enormous bosoms’ to which I replied ‘You mean Rita Hayworth?’ and Googled to show her a photo of the modestly-proportioned, brunette Ms Lockwood. (She did mean Margaret Lockwood, but had never looked up a picture of her. Apparently any given early 20th Century actress resembles Rita Hayworth in her imagination). But so far I haven’t resorted to inflicting pain as a teaching method.

*(One example of how short an attention span can be when processing facts in the mind of a creative writer – my favourite author client above was once convinced there was a lady named ‘Mrs Chapstick’ to reference in her latest book. It was in an email she had received that morning. I was suspicious. She opened the email to prove it to me. It was ‘Mrs Capstick’. I don’t have the time to even feel smug on those occasions. I might miss the next one in the deluge of supposed facts to check).

Perhaps writers who don’t do research, in preference to keeping their own erroneous assumptions pristine and in keeping with their imaginary reality, should be made to do push-ups every time a mistake surfaces. Holding a keyboard in their teeth. We’d all be a lot fitter.

Preparation makes you confident in writing in the same way that training makes you confident in sporting activities. Writing fluently exercises a set of intellectual ‘muscles’ and connections in your brain, exactly like in sports. When writing, try to remember that ‘facts’ and ‘anecdotes’ overheard in the bar or cafeteria (or occasionally, read in the gutter press, or imparted by elderly relatives) are about as convincing as a drunk person standing next to you outdoors at the dead of night, saying ‘I reckon you could climb up the outside of that building’ when the most you’ve ever climbed up are the stairs.

As humans, we learn our physical limitations quickly the minute they are tested, whether we are alone, or in front of others. But words on the page are not tested until others read them – or we stumble across the contradictions ourselves, having written them.

In both scenarios, doing sports and writing with limited facts at our disposal, two things can happen. One is helpful to us as individuals, and one is detrimental and further-reaching.

One: We acknowledge our shortcomings, and realise we’re not good enough for what we attempted. We go away and learn more, or we give up for now and try something more achievable.

 

Two: We fool our gullible audience into thinking we are experts, regardless of our inadequacies. This convinces us in turn of our ‘expertise’. Strange cults are formed to follow our examples and quote our doctrines. Our fans wonder why their friends don’t agree we’re the best thing since half-baked bread.

Remember – just because you can convince others of something, or that you’re good at something, doesn’t make it true. Or advisable, necessarily.

At the moment, the most painful thing for me to do is to sit upright at a monitor, working. Running around, training, and moving those injured muscles, getting some exercise endorphins, is more comfortable. Exercise is the next best feeling to propping myself all around with cushions and staring at the ceiling to take the weight of keeping my head upright off my neck and sternum. Even better than sleeping, where I have weird dreams, and wake up from strange spinal muscle spasms that induce me to go and vomit for no reason.

If I looked for deeper meaning in it, I would say my injuries are trying to get me into a better relationship with my body, and the real tangible and physical world instead of a virtual one, populated by unqualified opinionators and unconfirmed ‘facts’. I can train at home with my hula hoop or step machine, with my rechargeable cordless MP3 micro-SD card headphones on, and my imagination can wander in the safety of my own head, while my body recovers and gets stronger again. And that in turn makes me want to apply the same philosophy to my writing. I want to ‘get better’. I don’t want to wallow in thinking I’m stuck, or that I should get recognition for being a dud or a failure at anything. There’s still so much more to learn and to accomplish in life.

Accomplishment doesn’t have to be remarkable because it’s ‘in spite of’ one’s abilities or circumstances, physically or professionally. There’s a culture of celebrating limitation, which shouldn’t be a substitute for everyday hard work. An individual without physical or social limitations has to work just as hard to accomplish anything while being obscured in the fog of their otherwise ‘unremarkable’ lives. It’s just as likely to be achieved because of forward planning and preparation, and repair and recovery from any limiting circumstances without a fanfare of bells and whistles attached. People only think that plain hard work and effort is an unremarkable route because it’s the long-established one.

And we all have limitations, unremarkable or not. One person’s long walk down one set of stairs and up the other may be another person’s split-second double kong vault.

(You won’t catch me attempting that one yet. Maybe never).

Doing Parkour (which is all about taking the un-established route to get somewhere) also involves a lot of preparation. The good ones prepare hard, and train every day. They make it look easy. They’ve also had their fair share of spills.

Writers who make their work look easy subconsciously do the same thing – they prepare mentally, observe, check details, and have the ability to take all the information they’re given in life with a pinch of salt. They’re not afraid to question their own judgement, or the input of others. All of this is on autopilot, because it’s a mental attitude and discipline rather than a physical one.

Fiction writing is playtime, and as long as you don’t shuffle the geographical arrangement of the globe around, or mess with the laws of physics (if your stories are set in the real world) and laws of copyright, you have more freedom. You only need basic language and grammar skills, the ability to check any facts you do include, and you can let your imagination fly with confidence. Parkour is like playtime – again, once you have the skills and fitness to give you confidence.

There are of course still daily reminders of A World When Research Was All Crap. Like the time when a widely-held belief that the world was flat caught the imaginations of everyone on it, trying not to stray too close to the edges. Now the world is established as round, and we have a pretty clear concept of gravity, yet Accident & Emergency departments are inundated with drunken Parkour fans still keen to test it late at night at the weekends. And drunken martial arts fanatics. Like under-researched writers, they think it’s all bluff and bravado and you can convince just about anyone that you’re good at it after a good drinking session at the bar. Some things can make you embarrassed to be identified with them, when you’re trying to do the same sensibly and seriously, in a methodical, trustworthy and sober manner. Whether it’s research, writing, or a sporting hobby.

I do learn from observing the risks others take in both creativity and sports, where the ground is untested or the individual is pushing their own comfort zone. It works when the individual has the skills and qualifications, but less confidence. They know their discipline, they want to put it into more challenging practise, and they want to expand on strengths that they know they already have.

It fails where the confidence outweighs the skills and training. We’ve all seen the over-confident X-Factor auditionees who don’t understand or accept that they can’t sing in tune. It seems to be a completely different personality type – ‘learning/training’ is apparently beyond their comprehension, or they consider it unnecessary in proportion to the ‘star power’ of their ego. Whether this is because of a misplaced encouragement they’ve received, or some other form of self-delusion, it’s the same potential inner conflict that writers and sportsmen will confront at some point in their careers.

At some stage, an author or Parkour traceur able to avoid the emotional wave of self-delusion or greed for early achievement/attention, will be able to stop before they approach an untested subject or obstacle and say “I’m not ready/trained/fit/qualified to do that yet.”

For example, the next thing I want to try, sports-wise, is Capoeira, because I feel it could help me think more about the issues of rhythm and flow in Parkour, and provide some of the interaction of dancing, and martial arts without full-contact aggression. But after physio today, I was walking up the path thinking about the longer routines in Capoeira, and in particular the stance to maintain, and I knew my neck and sternum aren’t up to it yet.

And I thought “I’m not ready”. I have to heal first, and get stronger. Usually I would jump straight into a new sport. But this time, I do have extra work to do first. I recognised something similar before my first cross-country session on a quad-bike, years ago. I’d ridden one around a friend’s garden in Florida several years before, and recalled the best way to navigate bumps was to stand up. So for two weeks beforehand I hit the step-machine for fifteen minutes a day, watching TV, whatever I could manage, thinking about standing on the foot-rests of a wobbly quad-bike. It worked – I didn’t fall off. More to the point, my back and legs didn’t ache. My shoulders did – next time I’d include wrist weights as well, and maybe handgrip resistance trainers.

I’d admit the same thing if I was approached to edit a textbook about particle physics. I’m not qualified, but thank you. The idea would inspire me to do research, but I would acknowledge that it is possible I’d never be qualified to undertake such a project. I know my limits, and also the limits of reliable sources on that sort of subject for an amateur to trawl through.

When I want to learn a new sport, or look something up, I always hope to get good sources. I’ve had bad martial arts teachers in the past, who spent more time holding their own bleeding nose and then taking it out on their wife than holding the attention of the class. I have the same wary attitude towards questionable gurus who volunteer unconfirmed ‘knowledge’ for writing material. Or ‘research/advice’ picked up in the pub. I fondly remember a friend of mine breezing up to me in the club we both worked in (she was a barmaid, I was a bouncer) and with a huge grin she announced “How stupid am I? All my life I thought Champagne was a country, I’ve only just found out that it’s not!” and cheerfully headed off to serve her customers in VIP.

That’s something I love. Someone open to having their ‘knowledge’ challenged, and not afraid to admit it.

There’s a lot of armchair sports fans in the world, and a lot of armchair experts on any given subject. It’s possible to cross-check almost anything you’re told nowadays with the wonders of the interweb and the library, and I’m sure most mistakes are not contrived out of an evil desire to mislead the world, just genuine laziness, genuine gullibility, or a preference for the attractively unqualified expert at the end of the bar rather than going and doing any of the work oneself like a grown-up. They probably enjoy enough fun and flattery from flirting not to worry that the information they’ve gleaned isn’t worth the beer-mat it’s scrawled on. Often with a fake phone number too.

And a completely understandable fear probably stops most people from taking up sports or learning anything that could give them the kind of injuries I’ve got away with so far.

Makes me wonder what I’m getting out of it, when I practise Parkour, or train at home by myself. It’s not that I want to collect sports injuries. I want to get fit again and collect physical skills. Maybe I do just enjoy occupying a space that I’m not likely to encounter ‘those’ people in. The armchair experts. The gullible schmoozers, collecting unreliable resource material. I see enough of those people while I’m checking their books for mistakes. I finish work and I need the world to re-set to something much simpler, where all I have to deal with is what I can achieve physically, and focus on that and what’s in front of me. Not celebrity gossip, or conversation with equally unreliable people about world issues, public figures and politics, which makes me feel I need to be in reach of Google, and a dictionary to double-check all of that too.

I think that training, as well as being a physical outlet I’ve obviously enjoyed and played with all my life, is my barrier against having to deal with conversations with the pseudo-intellectuals I would run into if I went to local pubs, dinner party clubs or social groups instead to establish some new form of individual ‘identity’. Physical activity to me, even injured, is less taxing and exhausting than holding a conversation. I don’t want to have stressful intellectual conversations away from work (or away from my mum). I don’t find them fun, flirty or stimulating at all. Smalltalk and personal conversations I’m fine with. Those rarely involve checking facts of the sort that my lovely authors are preparing to blog, such as what year the aircraft was invented, where Nelson Mandela was born, who is currently running Europe or starring in Eastenders, and the precise laundry instructions of Nureyev’s tights. I’d rather have the quiet escapist nonsense in my own head, or switch off having to think altogether.

At least, I’d rather not have to be thinking of anything beyond how I’d rather land on the other side of the vault.

Lisa xxx

Art, Violence, and How We Occupy Space

The new, fully edited, beautifully produced edition of The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes will be launched next March. In the lead up to that, and in the spirit of  a book that was written in a Facebook group and was the product of some wonderful conversations with readers, I thought I’d post some essays, extracts, character sketches, backstories related to the book and so on in the run up to the release.

I want to start by circling around two subjects I come back to again and again that are intimately related. Art is something I come back to again and again – I can’t imagine a book or story without it, in fact – and galleries in particular, but that’s for another essay. What I want to talk about here is street art – a category I am deliberately leaving rather porous but in which I include street art, street poetry, parkour, skateboarding, urban exploring – pretty much any form of expression in an urban setting that is driven from the grass roots up and seeks to create an enhanced experience within our cityscapes.

Hungerford Bridge landscape 3

(The skatepark in the Southbank undercroft, a magical physical, ideological, and expressive space at the heart of my poem Hungerford Bridge)

Second, I want to talk about space – specifically the way we occupy space. This is one of the key subjects of the twenty first century. It has always been a delicate, dangerous topic, as the notion of space has progressed from one of territory, to one of personal boundaries, to a political keystone in the perpetuation of patriarchy, to a time now when we leave our footprints simultaneously on the ground and in the corridors of cyberspace.

The question “what space do I occupy and how do I occupy it?” is intimately tied up with the question “Who am I?” If I am a body then I occupy a matrix of coordinates roughly coterminus with the cells of that body. If I am a mind, then I occupy a far more complex matrix coterminus with the reach of my consciousness, or my influence, or my memory, or some other complicated recipe. Probably space is something far more subtle than either of those.

IMG_2704

(these friendly ducks are the latest tags to have appeared in Oxford. The city’s older university has responded by asking all staff to be on the lookout so they can shop the perpetrator)

Street art – as defined above – is an expression of something equally complex. It is at once an expression of our physical bodies in their physical environments. It is a way of, for want of a better word, leaking oneself into cracks and corners otherwise ignored or unexplored so as to find out more about oneself and that space. It is a way of altering space as it relates to others, a way of defining oneself, a way of questioning the appropriation of space and the notion of property, of challenging those who in some way share one’s space – whatever that means – to reconsider how they occupy their space – physically and ideologically – and with whom.

The conversation between street art and the occupation of space can take many forms. I am a passionate supporter of the campaign to keep the skatepark in the undercroft of the Southbank where it is rather than forcibly relocating it as part of the National Theatre redevelopment. Not only because this is a place embedded in my work and my consciousness, but because this is the epitome of a ubiquitous battle between culture that grows organically, spontaneously and passionately and a culture that, whilst equally passionate, is organised and funneled through filters of approval. Space is at work on many levels – from questions of how we make use of our city’s physical spaces, and who should decide what us we make of which space, to questions of visibility and how the marginalised and the outsiders – and the establishment – conceive of themselves in relation to their environment.

amniotic city(Amniotic City – a work that illuminates an occupation of space that never went away but needs uncovering by clearing away the dust of perception)

Lucy Furlong’s Amniotic City, a psychogeographic poetic guide to London’s hidden feminine, is an illustration of the may ways in which entirely different occupations of space can both coexist and undergo a power filter that means one has to be uncovered by the artist, almost like a work of forensic archaeology. Amniotic City details the manifold manifestations of the divine feminine in London, a whole world of meaning that has been hidden not because it is not there, not because it is not prominent, but because we have been made part of a separate ideological space, one that excludes it. Furlong’s work is a reinjection of the feminine into our perception of the world around us.

It can be so difficult for anyone in any way marginalised to find a way to occupy the same space as those who marginalise them – however that space is defined – that the only option for self-expression can be to create an alternate space that has no overlap with it on any level – in The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, Emma and Shuji are both examples of that.

Nonetheless, there are many liminal spaces where there is a tiny overlap of spaces, be it physical, semantic, ideological or other. Often, these will be characterised by a massive imbalance in occupation – in fact, occupation can often be the perfect word to describe them because the dynamic of overlap plays itself out as one of occupation and resistance, of an accepted, formal, managed space on the one hand and a space cluttered by traces, tags, hints, footholds on the other (one of the fascinations of parts of cyberspace is that communities that would be part of the marginalia of “regular society” become a norm into which that society often stumbles blindly, a dynamic I wanted to play out as Dan attempts to get to grips with the closed worlds of fan bulletin borads).

These imbalanced liminal spaces have always fascinated me – when I wrote the eight cuts gallery manifesto, it was couched in terms of doorways where the invitation has always been offered passive-aggressively by the “official” space for its unwelcome co-occupants to join it – the manifesto reverses that, and that is the role art plays in The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes. Whether it’s the street art of Skag or the otherworldly art of Ludwig, art offers symbols and clues from a world with its own fully coherent semantic system that, when viewed from another space seem mysterious, preternatural, or threatening.

Which brings me to the final steps of this syncopated dance. Markers from co-occupants of space often feel threatening – and the reaction is often outrage. Which leads to the last of the three (after separation and art) ways in which we find ourselves dealing with sharing space as the marginalised co-resident. Violence. Violence is at the heart of The Man who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes. often his takes the form of violence against oneself- of the inflicting of pain on oneself. Intrusion of co-existing spaces can often be interpreted as violence – the language (intrusion, irruption, interference) indeed encourages this. To that extent all attempts to occupy a co-occupied space are on a spectrum of violence – and that is something I want to explore. Not the seemingly obvious question of occupation and resistance, but the notion that art, that being oneself in such spaces is an inherently violent thing, and that the perpetration of the violence arises both in the self-expression and in the parsing of that self-expression and the imposed vocabulary through which that parsing occurs.