“Occasionally, it should be funny”, or, undercutting the seriousness

One of my favourite podcasts (and podcasts are one of my favourite things), is Radio 4s book club, where authors are interviewed about their work. James Naughtie presents it, and his calm yet engaging style is one of the few things that genuinely helps me switch off my anxiety. Two of the episodes I most enjoy listening to are the discussions with Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling.

There’s a great line in the first of these where Pratchett says:

“There’s part of me that will go for the gag. I could have been a contender, I could have been a Booker winner, probably, if not for that terrible idea that occasionally it should be funny.”

One problem with this blog is that I always feel the need to make a joke or a witty digression or the impulse to include something that seems especially original or unexpected. This makes it far harder to follow than it needs to be. Frustratingly, it also means that the sharp editorial eye I like to think I cast over other people’s work is mostly blind to my writing deficiencies, not least the critical inabilities to be succinct and ignore these needs and impulses to chip in with meandering absurdity.

My dad mentioned a few weeks ago that the blog is mostly “about my internal thoughts”. “What are external thoughts, then?”, I was tempted to reply. You could make the legitimate argument that language and literature are an extension of thought outside the brain, and I could say that piece of self-reflective logic is why I didn’t. In reality, I didn’t have the balls.

Ed Byrne has a wonderful bit in his comedy where he talks about things he wishes he’d said. The title of the DVD this piece comes from, “pedantic and whimsical”, might well be one of the many subtitles I’ve played around with for this blog. I could write about it, but frankly his delivery and crafting of the lines makes it what it is. Have a look here if you like. If not, essentially it’s that story you’d like to tell everyone really happened but if fact you really walked away fuming at your inability to deal with confrontation or awkwardness by saying anything at all.

That characteristic is probably as important to my life as anything else. If I actually said many of the important things I wanted to say to people I’d probably spend a lot less time penning these sorts of things. Odds are I’d probably not be doing elite athletics though, and that I’d have been fired from my job in a running shop for repeatedly mouthing off to infuriatingly condescending, pain rude or just frankly idiotic shoppers. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

This bent towards witticisms and a wry look at the world is something I’ll probably never shake off. As I spend a lot of my time contemplating mortality, the moral philosophies that govern our behaviour and wandering around the realms of both memory and imagination, I struggle to put all my eggs in one basket. Frankly, I’ve probably lost track of most of them in between a myriad of potential baskets, most of which I’ve mislaid somewhere or other.

It does mean I’m rarely genuinely bored, and can happily spend a lot of time alone, which is great. On the flipside though, a mind that’s always switched on, producing endless reasons to avoid fully committing to anything isn’t really conducive to either a relationship, a job or, sadly, elite sport. Ultimately, it’s just running around in a circle, ellipse or wiggly line, with or without some ridiculous jumping around.

On the other part of the title, I always feel the need to undercut the seriousness of any situation, even if it’s only with thoughts to myself, and that makes it hard to really take anything entirely seriously. I get anxious, upset, depressed and stressed, I’d definitely say more than most people, which certainly make things seem serious. With that though, I know that it’ll go away, and life will bounce back to whimsical absurdity or musing abstraction soon enough.

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This is simply here to look ridiculous. It’s a Halloween costume from 2009 that perfectly blended absurdity and value (I just grabbed a pumpkin as serendipitously impromptu headgear, the skull gloves were an incidental bonus)

Giving up my job and becoming a de-facto professional athlete is definitely serious, but also definitely absurd. De-facto in this case being an exceptionally suitable word, meaning ‘whether right or not’, or, ‘with lawful authority or not’. That last bit’s particularly funny, as I’m sure my parents would have preferred me to be a lawyer, until I made it to a level where International Competition seems decidedly plausible. Now they want me to be an international-athlete-lawyer. Well, at least I’m making some progress…

Frankly, it was a pretty disposable job, and I was very easily replaceable. Rightly or wrongly, I’m much less replaceable as an elite athlete.

The supply of people who meet the criteria to work in a running shop, isn’t exactly limited, those criteria being:

 

No that blank space isn’t a typo. The only criteria at a basic level seem to me to be willingness to work, or, perhaps even more cynically, willingness to be employed.

This is largely a joke. I have a lot of friends who do a wonderful job in shops, and can give advice that encourages people who are nervous, self-conscious or have no idea where to start into a relationship with a sport that might change their life. In rare moments, that will happen, and those sorts of moments are a delight and a privilege.

The supply of people with the capability, inclination, time and sufficient lack of self-preservation instincts to be an elite steeplechaser is rather shorter. I find myself, perplexingly, inside the top 40 in Europe last year for my event. This still surprises me.

I had a bet with my roommate at the training camp I’ve just flown back home from that the loser of a best of three table tennis match would have to jump into the swimming pool on the roof. It was colder than you might expect for Tenerife, even in December, so this wasn’t as relaxed a wager as it might seem. When going to collect the bats, the receptionist asked us who would win.

“Me”, he replied. Almost at the same moment, I answered “him”.

I actually won, and when I returned the bats I was asked who’d come out on top.

“Me”, I answered with a smile. “You don’t have to be confident, you just have to be good.”

This great line was wasted partly because of the receptionist’s limited English, and partly my botched delivery of a carefully crafted zinger.

I’m still not confident, but, despite my best efforts to prove otherwise, not least in my last race, I am fairly good. While you might not need confidence, it’s important to take things some things more seriously, or rather with conviction, and some things with a more relaxed approach.

As things are now, I can float around whimsically most of the time, but when it comes to the sport that’s now my job, and especially races like the Commonwealth Games, I need to clear my head of these witticisms, doubts and diversions, and get that job done. We’ll find out if I managed that in a bit less than four months (final selection pending, to be technically correct).

 

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Light on your feet or ‘A Hobbit Steeplechase’

This really is as silly as the second part of the title makes it sound. If not more so. I’d also be amazed if anything quite like this has ever been written before. On we go then…

A thought occurred recently while jogging to Euston, specifically after being briefly airborne across part of the forecourt to expidite my way through the masses. It’s important to be light on your feet for steeplechase, as well as just plain light.

Writing this now makes me think of that section from the hobbit, when Gollum, after being leapt over by mister Baggins, ‘threw himself backwards and grabbed’, but Bilbo escaped, and ‘falling fair on his sturdy feet, sped off down the new tunnel’.

If I seem unusually familiar with the verbatim text, it’s because one of my favourite things to listen to growing up was a BBC radio full cast adaptation of Tolkien’s novel. Years have passed, and I’m much better at running, somewhat taller and with many more words in my head, but it’s still among my best loved sounds. I often have it in my ears when I drift off to sleep, or occasionally if I’m immediately cast adrift into sleep after a particularly hard day’s training, in which case I don’t take much in!

Tolkien also spares a moment to illustrate the specific character of Bilbo’s bound: ‘seven feet forward and three feet in the air’. I was trying to work out how this corresponds to the height of the men’s steeplechase barrier (definitely unfair, but I’m sure there’s no specified Hobbit height), and it’s quite a likeness – three feet (assuming six feet as roughly 180cm), comes to 90cm, or almost exactly the right height (that being 91.4cm)

On less slapdash calculation, a foot is twelve inches, and an inch 2.54cm, which would make ten inches 25.4cm, and twelve, or a foot, 30.48cm. Brilliantly that comes to 91.44cm, with the Hobbit clearing the horizontal obstacle by a mere four millimetres! But then again Bilbo is only about three and a half feet tall, so in human terms it’s closer to a high jump than a barrier!

[Edit: just before publishing this, I googled ‘Bilbo height’, as you do, and was rewarded with the information that Hobbits are three feet and six inches on average. I only wish that had come up in a pub quiz, or rather less plausibly, on university challenge. As a segway within a digression, I was only a week and a half ago on a pub quiz team with a champion of said academic trivia program, and felt suitably awestruck.]

Seven feet forward is a fine bound, but equally not to the order of a proper long jump – it’s the equivalent of a human jumping 2.3 times their height, or 4.5 metres, assuming the human is six feet tall. Seven feet would be 205cm, which isn’t enough for the Hobbit to literally clear a water jump, as the water reaches out 3.66 metres from the foot of the barrier. Disappointingly, although our fictional leaper’s vertical deftness is almost flawlessly suited to clearing a normal barrier, he would need to either step on the water jump and prepare for an impromptu bath, or perhaps leap onto and over an airborne competitor, were his timing as impeccable as his airborne height.

Having written this, in the interest of fairness it must be emphasised that Bilbo wasn’t wearing any shoes, running or otherwise, and the surface of the caves under the misty mountains can’t have been the most conducive to either optimal takeoff velocity or absolute fleetness of foot. It seems fair to credit Tolkien’s diminutive protagonist with a bit of extra springiness in respect to height and length on a regular track surface, which may help with that pesky water jump.

To jump over Gollum, assuming it was a leap clean above the ‘miserable and wicked creature’ rather than past or alongside him, with three feet at the apogee of the Hobbit’s jump, (also assuming it was timed perfectly) means that Gollum was probably some combination of: crouching (very possible), in an extremely hunched position (almost certainly, if his posture in the films is anything to go by), and unable to stand to his full height due to malnutrition and all that crawling around in caves and tunnels. I reckon that last bit is almost certain.

In conclusion, both the whimsical abstraction of Bilbo running a steeplechase and the much more narrative bound practicality of leaping over Gollum seem acceptable, within the parameters of such a ludicrous way of passing two half hour tube journeys on a rest day when all I can think about is running! I wrote this last week (on the 31st of January) and subsequently spent most of today’s return leg tidying it up, but no doubt I’ll find further delays in the pipeline somewhere.

I do find the coincidence of the Hobbit’s leap and the barrier height somewhat ominous. Though this might be dismissed by a wiser person as mere happenstance, I can’t help but see it as part of the subconscious preconditioning that has taken me to the precipice of attempting to leap my way to 8:43, and Australia in 2018.

Or perhaps, for those readers familiar with the story, I might be asked a set of riddles to get to the Commonwealth Games, with the price of failure similarly high. I can’t say I fancy being eaten, but it may be that riddle steeplechase has the potential to join chess boxing among the most implausible of combined activities. Or perhaps not. Just as well, I suppose, as any International riddle steeplechase would probably be rightly played in Swahili…