Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Wind in the Willows

A day’s filming followed by lengthy train journey has resulted in my first attempt at a children’s story. Those with a short attention span might want to just scroll straight to the bottom…

Mole snuffled towards the surface of his burrow, scruffling through the soil until his claws became wet with the fresh dew of the long grasses above. Wriggling out from his tunnel, he stepped unsteadily onto a thick tree root that protruded from the willow tree behind. His eyes, more accustomed to the earthy murkiness of his burrow than daylight, blurred with watery tears as he blinked into the pale white sunshine. He squinted. The meadow into which he had emerged was little more than a leafy collage of autumnal colours. Even so, the tingle of warmth on his back and the soft whisper of trees rustling in the breeze told him it was a beautiful morning to be outside.

Reaching up until his fingertips grazed the vines of the willow he stretched luxuriously, a shower of crumbly soil slipping off his back. Then, straightening his flatcap, he fished his glasses from his trouser pocket and slipped them over his snout to look for a suitable place to sit. His eyes fell on a grassy hillock just behind him. Settling himself on the tufty, straw-like grasses, he leant back against a gnarly tree root that curved out from the trunk of the willow. And there he sat, serenaded by the lyrical chirps of a songbird and sucking on a straw of grass, for much of the morning.

As the air became hazy with mid-morning warmth, Mole closed his eyes, his thoughts wandering through his burrow and the surrounding pastures. He was just drifting into a dreamy doze when a sudden rustling of undergrowth and snapping of twigs nearby startled him from his reverie. He jumped, slipping off his hillock and knocking his glasses from his nose. Pushing himself upright, he strained his watery eyes in the direction of the commotion: a blurred gorse bush that seemed to blend into the adjacent tree trunk. The rustling came again, this time accompanied by a rushed whispering. Mole scrambled to his feet, his heart thudding uncomfortably fast.

“Who´s there,” he called, squinting at the blur of bush and trying to distinguish something. The whispering ceased abruptly. Mole glanced nervously around him. Slowly, what looked like four long poles came into focus. He blinked. The poles wobbled across his vision, knocking to and fro into each other at diagonal angles, before vanishing from view again. Mole rubbed his eyes with his knuckles and stepped tentatively forwards, straining to see where they had gone.

However, before he could move far, he was knocked sideways by a whoosh of fur. He glimpsed a whirl of grey before he twirled unsteadily in a circle and toppled to the grass, landing with a soft flump on his back. A quick pattering of feet surrounded him, and soon four fluffy paws had fastened around him, hoisted him swiftly upwards and set him on his feet. Two anxious faces swum into focus in front of him: twitching noses, whiskery cheeks and wide hazel eyes peering at him with concern. Looking at their long velvety ears quivering attentively, he recognised the four poles he had been watching earlier.

“Rabbits!” he exclaimed.

Their reply however was drowned out by the mechanical grumble of an approaching engine. The rabbits froze, glancing around nervously with sharp, panicked movements, the tips of their velvety ears twitching anxiously. Mole looked around hopelessly in search of the source of the noise, but the crescendo-ing hum seemed to come from everywhere all at once. After a moment’s pause, four little paws began knocking at him in every direction: pushing, pulling and prodding him in an attempt to hurry him off.

Mole, flustered, succeeded in moving no further than a few stuttered steps away from the willow roots when the growl of the engine suddenly grew louder, the roar of the motor interspersed with mechanical coughs and splutters as if the vehicle had suddenly rounded a corner and was now on a direct road towards them. The rabbits, seized by panic, began dancing nervously on the spot, unsure where to run. Then, before any had time to move, a car careered into the meadow less than 10 yards away from them. Mole, dazzled further by the glare of two round headlights, could only make out a chaotic blur of blue and green hurtling towards him at record pace. Frozen in fright, he stood rooted to the spot, the rabbits patting and padding him frantically at his side.

The roar of the engine reached deafening levels, the car so close that the enthusiastic “tally-ho-s” of its driver were just audible above the mechanics. Mole and the rabbits braced themselves for impact when, all of a sudden, there was a sharp crunch and the growl of the engine cut to a whir. There was a moment’s silence, before a whoosh of clatter knocked Mole from his feet. He was catapulted forwards and tumbling over the tree roots near him, landing on his back, dazed and disorientated, a good five yards from where he started. A chorus of disgruntled squeaks and thumps told him that the rabbits had also been swept up in the collision.

Mole felt around his front to find his glasses, which hung from a cord around his neck. Pushing them onto his nose, slightly skewed from the impact, he waited for his eyes to focus. Through the dull haze of smoke he could just define the shadow of a vehicle and the silhouette of the two rabbits, who were rolling to their feet tenderly, looking slightly dishevelled. As the smoke cleared, he could make out the chassis of the vehicle: a small, open-top car, the bumper dented from where it had just hit the gnarled root of the willow. The figure in the driver´s seat was still gripping the wheel; a broad grin split his face from ear to ear, and his eyes gleamed with bright-eyed enthusiasm.

Mole flumped backwards onto his back.

“Toad!” he fumed.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Headless corpses, rubber kidneys and The Mad Hatter…

Hidden on the edge of the bustling Covent Garden piazza, there is an oversized, handle-less door that, understated and inconspicuous, blends into the side of Bow Street. A swipe of your pass and it swings open, admitting you into a box-like corridor. Painted a dark red, it is home to little more than two lifts and a sorry-looking vending machine. Welcome to the innards of the opera house: a multi-storeyed, colour-coded network of narrow corridors that hug the main auditorium and historic front of house areas. A grid-like system, it should be easy to navigate. In reality, it´s a labyrinth. On some floors, certain corridors are inaccessible, and a handful of departments can only be reached by one particular lift. Several staircases seem to bypass all floors and deposit you on a street-level fire exit, while other corridors suddenly open onto lofty terraces with views across London.

Since starting at the House in March, I’ve often found myself circuiting the building in search of a meeting room: I’ve come across glass cases displaying manuscripts from the 19th century and lingered on passages to listen to arias resonating from private rehearsal rooms; crossed workshops lined with elaborate wigs and passed studios dotted with ballerinas chatting while stretched out comfortably in the box splits. On these disorientated wanderings, though I struggle to re-trace my steps exactly each time, I have learnt to avoid ground level Yellow Core at all costs (choose the wrong door and you could unwittingly stumble onto the main stage) and have developed a preference for certain areas…

+2 is a particularly good floor to be lost on. The corridors overlook the enormous set-build area – a warehouse-like space big enough for a house. Look left and who knows what you might see. Last week it was the bloodied stump of a headless corpse, its dismembered limbs resting next to a snowy white elk; the next window revealed two giant forearms with claw-like hands, the pink muscles and sinews stretched taut over gleaming white bone: just some of the props for Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In April, I looked through the same windows and saw the entire city of Carthage – a towering Arabian metropolis of golden sandstone (reinforced polystyrene). An enormous circular structure, it was backed by a battle-torn Troy – a tarnished edifice of board-planks and scaffolding (artistic paintwork): the set for Berlioz’s Les Troyens.

Riding up and down in the lift can also be interesting, particularly so in Blue Core. Doors open on +2 to reveal costume rails heavily laden with elaborate period dress and posts stacked high with sparkling, netted tutus; stop on +4 and you get a quick glimpse of the twinkling mirrors and glass walls in the ballet studios. Interesting characters always alight the lift when in Blue Core. Once, the Mad Hatter stepped in next to me. His face daubed white, with dark eyebrows penciled in permanent surprise, he wore bright white, furry breaches and a waistcoat. Another time two baboons entered, both moaning about aching quad muscles from too much monkey-based choreography.

The Props Department is one of my favourite destinations. A light and airy workshop, it is hidden in the rooftops of the house (+6, access via Blue Core lifts only). On entry, you are greeted by an ominous looking black raven, its wings spread in mock flight. One of the only permanent residents in the workshop, it oversees proceedings from atop the corner of a heavily laden bookshelf. Though the team there works to a strict timetable on tight deadlines, the workshop resembles an over-sized, junk shop that is constantly accumulating new stock. Tables are cluttered with everything from rubber kidneys and fake jewels to paintbrushes and blow-torches. From the back corner, a disembodied baby’s head protrudes from a workbench; fashioned onto the end of a light-stand and cocked sideways, it watches the work going on with blank eyes. Last time I visited, two life-size plastic horses – one a vibrant red, the other a canary yellow – occupied a corner of the workshop, standing alongside a morbid collection of entombed nuns and a rustic fruit wagon laden with gourds and impossibly conical heaps of herbs and spices.
Needless to say, I have been late to quite a few meetings!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Concrete Jungle

In March, I moved to the Walworth Road in Elephant & Castle, the birdsong dawn chorus of suburbia swiftly replaced by a nighttime polyphony of sirens and my monthly train pass swapped for a second-hand bike. Defined by an enormous double roundabout, labyrinth of underground tunnels and a dated multiplex, the area couldn´t be further from the leafy lanes of Surrey. More of a through-road on a main bus route than a residential area, by day it is a chaotic clog of traffic. By night it´s desolate, the pavements scattered with uncollected rubbish and debris. Voluptuous silhouettes linger suggestively under the railway arches and disparate groups loiter listlessly outside all-night newsagents with windows caged in security grates. Drunks stagger unstably along the kerbside, side-stepped by quick-footed commuters alighting from the night bus, and shop-owners using the emptiness of the early hours restock their stores, some wearing grubby white aprons and shouldering animal carcasses, others shifting mattresses or crates of Tupperware.

As Walworth is devoid of social nightlife, I often find myself on the 35 to Brixton for an evening out. Once a no-go area in London, the site of the infamous riots of the 80s, Brixton now has the buzz of an area on the up. Home to the best restaurant scene south side of the river, edgy vintage shops and late-night watering holes, its streets draw a diverse crowd and are always a hive of activity. In comparison, Walworth feels like a wasteland. For one, it is dominated by the dilapidated shell of the notorious Heygate Estate. A sprawling concrete monstrosity, the estate was initially conceived as some kind of socialist utopia, but rapidly became a crime hotspot. Now, its walls daubed with colourful expletives, windows boarded and only a few stubborn residents remaining in a complex that once housed 1000s, it is on the brink of demolition and pending redevelopment. The glistening glass-fronted Strata nearby is something of a paradox in comparison, poignantly out-of-place amidst the surrounding monotony of drab tower blocks. A teaser of what could be?

The local in the bike repair shop – an ex-Heygate resident – always reflects fondly on the years when the estate was full and Walworth wasn´t such a ghost town. Though I imagine the crime stats tell a different story, he has a point: the whole area feels abandoned. On the doorstep of central London, it is a potential goldmine. Yet as London primps and preens for the 2012 games, it remains on the edge of the regeneration drive. A forgotten strip. Dreary-and-dismal rather than up-and-coming.

I suppose that until redevelopment is put into action, the central location will have to compensate for the desolate cityscape. My commute used to involve a 45-minute train journey, during which the novel I had planned to read was often forgotten in favour of an inelegant, head-bobbing snooze or a vacant scan of the morning´s Metro. Now, my journey has been cut to a 15-minute cycle. Though something of a slalom race with traffic on route to Waterloo, that I can get up at 9am and be home by 5.45pm if I want to more than justifies living in the urban nucleus. It may be a concrete jungle, but at least, with excellent transport links, it´s easy enough to escape it!

Friday, 8 June 2012

Green dreams...

Abu Dhabi is still something of a work in progress. In some areas, the streets twinkle with glass-fronted skyscrapers - slick office blocks, swanky apartments and opulent hotels. In others, the roads are strewn with the rubble of half-complete constructions and reverberate noisily to the rattle of pneumatic drills. Even so, though it's still in development, it is already reminiscent of its flashy neighbour Dubai.

Dubai feels a bit like Abu Dhabi's big brother. Only an hour and a half’s drive away, it is the ultimate heart of hedonism. A futuristic forest of towering skyscrapers and bright lights, it is chic, glamorous and a natural entertainer. Atlantis, a hotel spread across the upper curve of the famous Palm, embodies the flamboyance of the city. A sophisticated entertainment park, it takes the all-inclusive to another level. To explore it is like walking through a Disney movie: in one of the foyers, an entire wall has been replaced by an enormous aquarium - when walking to your room, you are followed by leopard-speckled eels and fleets of sting-rays; similarly, when outside of the hotel, guests can choose between multiple beaches, a selection of swimming pools, a water park and even a dolphinarium.

In complete contrast, if you drive in another direction from Abu Dhabi, you will find yourself in the desert on the cusp of The Empty Quarter - the world’s largest sand desert. In the morning, it seems calm and welcoming, the soft sunlight of the early hours casting sleepy shadows and the sand comfortably cool underfoot. By midday however, it is a furnace of unforgiving heat and gritty oven-hot winds. A barren and hostile landscape, it couldn’t be more different from the self-indulgent stylish cities nearby. However, though unbearable for us, it is a potential powerhouse of green energy. 

It seems cruelly ironic that such renewable promise is found in a land that oozes oil from every crevice: it’s optimistic to imagine that anyone would invest in alternative energy sources when sitting on a seemingly bottomless reservoir of oil. Even so, wouldn’t the mountains of gold currently being used to bling up the cities be better employed in making the Middle East a mecca of sustainability?

Perhaps it´s worth trying to get an open-minded, eco-friendly Sheikh on-side…

Friday, 11 May 2012

Time are tough in Madrid

This time last year, Madrid's Puerta del Sol was the hotbed of Spanish politics, spontaneously transformed into a protest camp that engulfed the centre for weeks – a movement dubbed 15-M. Now, the revolutionary fervour that ignited the passions of so many seems to have fizzled out, replaced with a weary, down-beat resignation: empty tables in restaurant terraces, quieter shops on the high street and a notable swell in people plying their trade on the streets. Times are, most definitely, tough.

I noticed it almost as soon as I arrived in Madrid. The city was heaving with beggars, buskers and vendors, unacknowledged or simply unseen. The leathery-faced old lady hunched beneath her shawl, monotonously turning the wheel of a windup music box; the blind beggar shuffling between the tables of restaurant terraces, eyes clouded with cataracts and head nodding mechanically; the disused doorway established as a bedroom for three, piled high with flattened cardboard boxes and discarded clothes... No corner was unoccupied. Even on the metro from the airport there was a three-piece band squashed into half of the carriage. Pressed shoulder-to-shoulder by the door, one twanged a fast-paced riff on a battered-looking double bass while the saxophonist and accordion player bobbed rhythmically to his side, another maneuvering between commuters to collect loose change in an empty tennis racket case.

In addition, the carnival of performers usually concentrated in Plaza Mayor had overflowed into Puerta del Sol, and the fluorescent-vested gold sellers based in the city's historic centre had to weave in between life-size smurfs and a Puss-in-Boots as they gabbled their sales offers. Human statues in elaborate costumes wobbled uncomfortably in their poses, and a serious-faced torero, dressed in full bull-fighter finery with a briefcase in hand, roamed between the statues solemnly. The Jesus Christ had attempted to up his game by painting himself and his crucifix a metallic gold, and a slightly grotesque baby and cot had appeared – a yellow-toothed face surrounded by a cluster of soft toys. Daubed with clown-like face paint and wearing a dirty-white linen bonnet, it gestured to passersby with plastic arms that must have been detached from a child´s doll.

Needless to say, it seemed that innovation was running low. Duplicates were abound. I noticed at least four headless sailors, and the inexplicably successful snapping goat had multiplied five-fold: from curly-horned Friesians to plastic fauns, there was a trend for sparkly streamers and animal heads with hinged jaws. There were, however, no imitations of Spiderman. The ringmaster of the circus was centre-stage in Plaza Mayor, broad-bellied and enthused with an energy that he had notably lacked on my previous visit. Back to his usual sparkling form, he commanded the plaza in a mix of broken English, heavily accented French and Spanish bravura. Pacing the square purposefully, he was alert to any with a lingering step and camera-in-hand, sending shy tourists quick-march in the opposite direction and engaging braver ones in an animated, multi-lingual exchange. It was a relief to see that his under-pa performance of a month ago had just been a temporary lapse.

Perhaps, just as Spiderman has highs and lows, I simply caught Madrid on an off weekend last week: heavy cloud and drizzle keeping people indoors and bars empty, emphasising the sadder sights of the city. It seems a likely conclusion – in the sunshine, you have to table-stalk restaurant terraces just to get a seat. Similarly, I´m told that, though the revolutionary fervour of last year seems a long way away, the 15-M movement is still bubbling under the surface. With strikes planned to mark the anniversary, it´ll be interesting to see what turn events take.

Times may be tough, but I can´t imagine the Spanish to stay down-beat for long...

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The final countdown...

Since my final pre-marathon training run at the end of March – a toe-bruising 23 miles – I have only ventured onto the roads three times in as many weeks. Though all part and parcel of the tapering-off process, the lack of running in the lead up to the big day is unnerving, particularly as I have felt heavy-legged and sluggish each time I've ran. 

Though perhaps understandable to feel weary only a few days after a 20-miler, struggling to complete a short lap of Kennington Park only the week before embarking on a marathon is hardly a confidence boost. Instead of feeling prepped and primed, I´m paranoid about the miles I´ve missed in training and confused about carb-loading tactics. In hindsight, a boozy weekend of wedding-fueled revelry and a night dancing Strip the Willow and the Gay Gordons in high-risk heels, wasn´t exactly ideal preparation. As a result, I´ve spent a panicked three days on a serious, if slightly belated, health kick. 

However, weekend excesses aside, at least I have made it this far. From loops of Clapham Common on dark and frosty mornings, to late-evening circuits of Battersea Park, to monotonous laps of the swimming pool during the week… Now, there´s only three days to go and no way to wriggle out of it. Though convinced that in the hours preceding I´ll either clumsily injure myself, lose my timing chip or get lost on route (all worryingly likely scenarios), I should be on the start line on Sunday. After notably sporadic training, I haven´t a clue how it will go. The only thing I can be certain about is that I´ll be relying on bloody-mindedness and praying for a strong tail wind. Unfortunately, weather reports so far have confirmed that it´s likely to be pissing it down. Typical! 

I´m still collecting sponsorship, and am a fair way behind the target total that I promised to Children with Cancer. Thanks to those of you who have already donated, and to those who haven´t, envisage 26.2 miles in the pissing rain. You can sponsor my efforts here!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Does Spiderman get hangovers?

Had it changed in the seven months I´d been away?

The Tio Pepe building in Sol was still hidden behind a curtain of green net and scaffolding... the bearded beggar on Calle Carretas still swayed shakily behind the same cardboard plea... Plaza Mayor was still the melting pot of Madrid, humming as it always did to the tuneful motifs of accordion players… However, when I used to visit on midweek mornings the shiny cobbles were untrodden - expectant, expansive and empty. Last weekend in comparison, the square was heaving: a congested mill of well-dressed abuelos, tourists in halter-necks and hot pants, and locals wrapped up in duffel coats and Doc Martins.

Most notably, the carnival of street performers had swollen ranks. Of course, the long-term residents still occupied their favoured corners - the weary Mini Mouse shuffling in circles around the central statue, the tabletop of zombie heads routinely startling passers-by - but new characters were strolling in between the familiar faces. A nonchalant Elvis strutted back and forth in front of the terraces, his hands laden with cheap finger bling and his tango-tanned cheeks framed by a stiff collar and colourful Hawaiian garland. Occasionally he would pause for a discrete word with a headless sailor, whose floating glasses wobbled on the bounce of their wire supports, or would cock his head in greeting to a toothy yellow sponge, just one of the multiple Spongebob Squarepants. There was even a bare-chested, long-haired Jesus Christ lugging a make-shift crucifix around the square.

However, for all the new arrivals, one member of the plaza was poignantly absent. Spiderman, whose presence had been reliably predictable during my year in Madrid, was notable only by his absence: the ringmaster of the circus nowhere to be seen. It wasn´t until the square was nearing gridlock with the lunchtime rush that his hulking figure appeared.

His distinctive silhouette instantly recognisable, he lumbered into the square from the shadows of a restaurant terrace, walking with heavy legs and laboured steps towards his customary corner. On arrival, he drew his plastic wheelie box to a halt beside him and swung his paper-mache miniature unceremoniously onto the cobbles. Then, rocking back on his heels, arms clasped loosely behind his back, he briefly scanned the milieu of people before him before walking a short loop. Arms swinging characteristically as he went, his unmistakeable outline seemed largely unchanged - the distended barrel of his stomach perhaps slightly bulkier, the slack of his suit stretched in even baggier sags. He walked purposefully through the crowds, bumping fists with a suited clown and saluting one of the waiters on his way to the centre before circling back.

On returning to his wheelie box, he thrust his arms skywards in a full body stretch and made a few stiff circles with his hips in an unexpected sequence of stretches. However, the effort alone of limbering up seemed to swallow what little enthusiasm he had: no sooner had he finished than he collapsed onto his plastic trunk in a heavy round-shouldered slouch. His torso folded in a double roll of breast and belly, legs resting in a shallow V shape, he mechanically folded up his mask and lit a cigarette. Puffing mindlessly on his fag, wholly detached from the buzz of the plaza, he seemed a sorry shadow of the showman who used to command the square. Even a noisy rabble of 15 – a wave of matching fluorescent T-shirts that would have been a jackpot for the Spiderman-of-old – failed to inspire him: he remained stubbornly seated as they passed, his usual theatrical display abandoned.

Is Spiderman struggling to keep pace with the carnival of street performers? Or is he just fed up of the burgeoning circus in Plaza Mayor and unwilling to compete with walking fruit bowls and men selling invisible mouth whistles?

Or, maybe even Spiderman isn´t immune to the non-stop nightlife of the MadrileƱos and he just had a stonking hangover? I wonder where he goes out for a drink…

Monday, 12 March 2012

Wide-eyed and with weary legs

London on a sleepy Saturday morning: Brixton high street empty except for the Friday night debris of crushed plastic pint glasses and lumpy splatters; Vauxhall station sparsely scattered with colourful characters and burly bouncers that hulk outside darkened doorways; the plinths of Trafalgar Square refreshingly clear, free from the gridlock of snap-happy gaggles. A city that seems to shift drastically in mood from morning to night, week-day to weekend, London consistently surprises me. Grand and inspiring at times, drab and exhausting at others, fun-loving and eclectic one minute, hectic and frustrating the next, the atmosphere is never the same.

Training for the Virgin London Marathon has opened up new windows into the city for me. From the concrete slab tower blocks of Stockwell to the red-brick town houses in Kensington to the neatly manicured flower beds surrounding Green Park, I´ve run through corners of London I´d never before bothered to visit, past monuments I´d never noticed and sights I´d never properly appreciated. Whether it be seeing up-close the iconic husk of Battersea power station or circling a crowd-free Hyde Park Corner, I see London through fresh eyes when I’m running. It hasn´t taken many outings to realise that, however well I mentally map the cityscape, I will never stop discovering it.

Sight-seeing runs aside, marathon prep has not been plain sailing. The meticulously planned schedule has had to be been abandoned in favour of erratic runs whenever my body feels like it. Sporadic rather than continuous, training has been interspersed with panicked enquiries about deferral, overpriced physio appointments and far too much time looping the swimming pool instead of pounding the pavements.When I have managed to get out on the streets, runs have ranged from light-stepped cruises to sluggish struggles, 4 miles on weekday mornings to 16 miles on a Saturday afternoon. The experience has certainly taught me a few things other than the city´s geography: always carry jelly babies, wear a bum-bag not a backpack and never go for a run and then board a peak-time commuter train.

Training blips aside, I am now marginally more confident about making the start line on the 22nd. As such, the fundraising can begin. Get ready for pleading e-mails and facebook groups. I promise that, even if I end up walking the last ten miles, I´ll give it my best shot! You can sponsor me here.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Eyes shut and ears open

When a friend recommended substituting soundtracks on my ipod for audiobooks and podcasts, I dismissed the notion almost immediately, considering anything verbal when walking or exercising to be a dangerous distraction that would inevitably lead to clumsy injury.

However, I recently had to review an audiobook as part of a job application and so was forced to abandon my prejudices and plug in. Despite my resentment at spending a Saturday doing something job-related, I was pleasantly surprised when the morning slipped by being soothed by the suave tones of Jeremy Irons. Curled up in a hazy half-snooze, eyes-shut and ears-open, I was whisked away to the world of the novelist without even having to open the book. In a room without TV and with frustratingly temperamental internet, it provided effortless escapism.

Though it will take some time before I have the confidence to swap driving basslines for a topical podcast when out running, there is something oddly satisfying about having someone read to you when in the safety of your flat. Is that because it’s a comforting allusion to the days when someone read you a bedtime story? Or is it simply an idle indulgence for those reluctant to read for themselves? Or, maybe it’s so satisfying because the style of narration actually adds something to the text…

To help justify my lazy eyes, I’ve decided to go with the latter.

Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. Narrated by Jeremy Irons

Described by the author as “a novel about the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”, I was fairly apprehensive about starting Brideshead Revisited, anticipating a weighty novel laden with complex, religious themes. However, my reservations dissolved within the opening minutes of the narration. A far cry from a moralizing religious sermon, Waugh guides us through the delicious decadence of pre-war English aristocracy, as seen through the eyes of his protagonist Charles Ryder.

A man who “sails through the world riding on his creamy English charm,” Ryder’s story is an  ambling account of carefree merriment, hedonistic weekend jaunts and indulgent lunches, through which Waugh deftly touches on the murky themes surrounding Atheism and Catholicism. One of the finest British writers of the 20th century, his lyrical literary style is ideally suited for an audio book, and as I listened to his meandering tale, I felt as if Charles Ryder was actually sat opposite me idly chatting over a cup of tea. 

The novel is narrated by the quintessentially English Jeremy Irons, who was catapulted to stardom following his interpretation of Ryder in the award-winning TV adaptation of Brideshead in 1981. Irons explained his identification with Ryder by describing him as “the man who I was educated to be”, and has since referred to the TV series as, “the swan song to that side of my life”. He was undoubtedly the ideal choice for the audio book, and his connection with the protagonist is evident in his narration. He speaks with expressive ease, his suave tones emphasising the subtle snobberies of English elegance that underlie the text.

An engrossing immersion into the flamboyance and extravagance of the early 20th century, Brideshead is considered Waugh’s magnum opus, and Irons’ eloquent narration of the audiobook adds yet another dimension to the text.

A must-read that is now a must-listen, the Brideshead Revisited audiobook is not to be missed.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

87 days and counting...

"So, you´ll soon be running a half-marathon every week, building up to at least 5 runs a week and a weekly mileage of about 45 miles per week. This should culminate in a 22-mile run about 3 weeks before the big one..."

After this speech by a seasoned marathon runner at a London 2012 training day, I conceded that my vague fitness strategy would need substantial revision if I am to make it through the marathon. Though the talk was intended to motivate runners, with legs still twitching uncomfortably from the 11-mile group run and a head stuffy from a birthday-night-out in Shoreditch, I felt more intimidated than inspired. However, fortunately it only took a Sunday roast and an afternoon meticulously colour-coding a training plan to make me feel much more positive. In fact, as my job is still distinctly shaky, I’m actually quite glad to have something as uncompromising and all-consuming as a marathon to keep me focused. 

Even so, only 2 weeks in, two major problems (other than strength of willpower) have already become apparent. For one, maintaining a normal work and social life will be a feat requiring military precision. Squeezing miles in after work and still having the enthusiasm to walk to the pub is certainly something I will have to get used to. I will also need to perfect my technique when running in the morning. On Thursday I got up at an unearthly hour (blissfully unaware of the monsoon-like conditions outside) to clock up some mileage before work. However, blinded by sheets of rain and gloomy light, I ended up adding an unintentional mile and a half to my route and arrived back at my flat bedraggled and exhausted with only 45 minutes before work. Needless to say, despite the early start, I arrived late and looking even more disheveled than usual. Similarly, post-run productivity is proving to be a problem. Last week, optimistic hopes for an efficient Sunday finishing off some freelance work evaporated after 12 miles around Westminster. The morning's efforts consigned me to a duvet-clad afternoon watching a dubious Lord of the Rings imitation starring Jason Statham. I’ve absolutely no idea how I’ll manage increasingly long weekend endurance runs when the diary is rapidly filling with hen dos, weekends away and weddings.

The other major challenge for me will be remaining injury-free. Despite having spent nearly half my weekly wages on gait assessment and new trainers,  I’ve already had my first Oyster-card-moment: I found myself half way to Battersea (typically without my Oyster or any money) when my ankle became too painful to run on and I had to hobble home to an ice-pack and some ibuprofen. I suppose it’s inevitable that spending disproportionate amounts of time pounding the pavements is not conducive to healthy bones, but no matter how much core-strength training I do, my body seems to have an unfortunate propensity for injury. As such, I can regretfully predict that managing injuries and forking out for physio will be an unfortunate characteristic of the next few month. (I suppose that - in the case of disaster - I can always defer for a year.)

However, though for now I am resigned to the fact that any spare time will be spent either napping or horizontal with a bag of frozen peas, I am hoping that I will gradually learn when to take-it-easy and when to push-through niggling pains. Similarly, I'm assuming that I’ll become an expert at juggling running with weekends away and evenings out. In fact, injury frustrations and social calendar aside, I am actually looking forward to the intense few months ahead. Of course, another task I feel slightly apprehensive about is raising sponsorship for my chosen charity,

Children with Cancer. Being part of the London Marathon Mr Men team, and therefore responsible for raising over a quarter of the charity's income, I will need to get stuck into the fund-raising sooner  rather than later…

So, if you do want to contribute to a good cause, or give me a bit of added incentive and a head-start up the hill, you can sponsor me at 

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Steamy sessions with a French baker

I didn´t quite realise what I´d let myself in for when I paid for a 25-day membership of a yoga studio in Clapham. Though well aware that the studio only offers classes of Hot Yoga (yoga practiced at a steamy 38°C), being hypersensitive to the cold, I found the prospect of some sub-tropical heat – even if it was to be artificial – fairly alluring. Similarly, given my back-catalogue of disastrous yoga classes (ranging from hours of meditative chanting to impossible acrobatics), I reasoned that it couldn´t be worse than previous experiences. However, I started to feel dubious as soon as the teacher entered on the first class of my 25-day stint. A squat Frenchman, his physique can only be described as slack: a soft, squashy torso with podgy bulges rounding over the elastic band of his very-short shorts. Though as the class progressed I warmed to his softly accented instructions, because he was unable to demonstrate lots of the positions I remained suspicious of his coaching abilities. My doubts were confirmed when I later discovered that this supposed yoga guru is also a professional pastry chef – a somewhat ironic dual identity.

Even if you put the French baker to one side, the actual yoga – consisting of short, basic sequences loosely linked to your breathing - wasn’t that challenging. Though by the end my body was pulsating, this was due to heat exhaustion rather than muscle weariness (I suppose an inevitable side-effect of a temperature gage that is pushing 40˚C). At one point, I was sweating so much I thought I was actually melting. It is certainly a purifying, cleansing experience, and far more effective than a sauna and a face pack. Similarly, for those who are particularly tight, yoga in a muscle-loosening 38˚C must be ideal for a bit of added elasticity. However, for those who are already fairly bendy, it seems a bit pointless. It even felt slightly sordid at times: lots of half-naked bodies packed like sardines into a small space, sweating profusely in a series of grunts and lunges. Within half an hour, your mat is flecked with splashes of your neighbour’s sweat, a periodic spray that continues throughout the class and which, when upside down in a Downward Dog, you are powerless to prevent. Furthermore, after an hour, even deep breathing - elemental in yoga - becomes increasingly unappetizing as sticky aromas start to overpower the incense. In fact, the inevitable pong seems to vary in pungency depending on the person next to you (and whether or not they are sweating out last night’s curry). In the most recent class I went to, I was squashed so uncomfortably close to the man next to me (alcohol sweats if I’m not mistaken) that I repeatedly hit him on the bum every time I did a forward bend… I snuck out of that one early.

I still (regrettably) have 15 days left of free classes, and so I’m not going to completely reject Hot Yoga.With the London Marathon looming ahead of me, the growing pressure to clock up some mileage and a body that feels particularly wobbly and brittle, I have resigned myself to some intensive yoga in a bid to build up a bit of strength. However, I can’t help but question if it is ever good for you to perspire that much: there is a reason why there are time restrictions on saunas and steam rooms. Ideally I would prefer to work up a sweat from challenging, muscle-shaking yoga sequences instead of radiators and dumbed-down imitations. Similarly, if paying through the nose for a class, I expect to hear hard-earned yoga wisdom from some spiritual quasi-Buddhist who has spent half their life in India… not a pastry-chef.

Back in the day when I still had an NUS card, I frequented the £1.20 yoga class at the Student Union in Cardiff. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian called Yulia – criminally bendy with the appearance of never having ingested a single toxin – led a demanding Ashtanga class that left your muscles throbbing and your limbs heavy. It certainly felt more organic. Then again, maybe I’m just a yoga snob... A fellow yoga-goon recently joked that if you put a bench press in a steam room and marketed it in the right way, you could charge £15 for a half-hour session - a prediction I can easily believe. Could Hot Yoga just be a fad? Another fitness craze with a little bit more staying power than most? A trend designed for those simply too lazy to work up a sweat on their own?

I’m yet to decide…