Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Joining the gym.

My wife just took out a family membership of our local gym. I told her I probably wouldn’t need it because I already have a set of weights in my garage but I have to admit that at this time of year clanking away in the damp freezing  gloom amongst the barbecue, lawnmower and kids bikes isn’t  a lot of fun.
I haven’t actually been a member of a gym for nearly fifteen years, my trainers are the same ones that I wear to walk the dog in the woods and I don’t have one of those t shirts composed of anatomically shaped panels that make me look like a butcher’s diagram so as I headed down there last night I was half expecting to find a whole bunch of equipment I didn’t recognise or that the place was filled with the cast of Jersey Shore.
I need not have worried; aside from having to swipe myself in and then being presented with a beautifully folded towel at the front desk, little has changed in the time I’ve been away. The rowing machines, step machines and exercise bikes are all pretty much the same and after windmilling my arms a couple of times and doing a few cursory hamstring stretches it all started to come back to me. I sat myself down on the ergonometer, set the distance for 2000 meters and cranked the resistance knob to just below maximum – my old settings and the prelude to many a punishing workout on the weights.
One thing that does appear to have changed though is the way they calibrate the resistance, because from the first pull it felt as if I was heaving a barge along a muddy embankment .
After a minute my lungs were bursting, my arms were aching and I was on the pointing of jacking it in and trying something easier – like the drinking fountain - when, just my luck, somebody plonked himself down at the machine next to mine giving me no choice but to keep plugging away grimly.
The digital display works backwards from your target distance and gives all sorts of breakdowns of time, distance and calories and with the sweat coursing off me I watched it counting down with agonising slowness. Instead of feeling like Spartacus at his oar on the sparkling waters of the Adriatic I felt like one of the Chilean miners, being slowly winched through the darkness in his metal capsule, willing the distance to deplete but seemingly powerless to make it go faster.
What was worse the guy next to me kept glancing across at my monitor, causing me to redouble my efforts even though my lungs were, by now, heaving like organ bellows and my exhausted arms and legs were hopelessly out of sync. Eventually, with a final, burst of frantic pulling the counter clocked zero and  I came to a grateful stop.
The guy next to me was still working away, looking infuriatingly unruffled and so, with my vision swimming in and out of focus and my knees threatening to fold under me at any moment I staggered over to the drinking fountain and noisily gurgled down a couple of litres before collapsing on a convenient mat and making a pretence of stretching off.
As I stared up at the ceiling I was  forced to admit that I’d done nothing more than prove that, physically, I’m not in the same shape I was a few years ago.
However, psychologically speaking, I am still a man in the prime of his life; because with absolutely nothing of any measurable value at stake, I had been ready to go the distance without a second thought.
My ego still has rock hard pecs, my double y chromosome pettiness has a twenty-eight inch waist and you can crack walnuts on the butt cheeks of my refusal to quit so long as there someone is watching.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


I have had an on off relationship with running ever since I was twelve but right now, as I’m trying to get fit for a charity event in the summer, me and running are back on.

So now I’m grinding out the miles each night on the forest trails near our home with Pippin bounding ahead in the beam cast by my head torch. Its not fun and even though I'm barely a couple of heartbeats above walking pace there’s an upside to running which I always forget when I’m not doing it and that is, when I’m alone on the trail anything is possible.

I can be I can be Tom Cruise sprinting the rain slick cobbles of Prague in a tuxedo or Rocky Balboa pounding the bustling streets of Philly in tattered sweats. I can be the poetry of ‘Chariots’ opening scene or the irresistable force of Bad Ben Johnson. I can be William Wallace charging over the green fields of Bannockburn or Forrest Gump effortlessly running the desolate plains of the South West.

Some people say they order their thoughts when they run, plan their day, thrash out issues in their head. Not me, in my head I’m scrambling rocky trails that lead ever upward into the  mist or covering the last heroic mile with the end of an epic journey in sight. I’m not thinking about all the things I need to do - that's what driving the car is for.

There’s a tremendous amount of people out there sharing their thoughts on why they run. Here’s three very different and enjoyable slants on the subject.

Jon Eig, Journalist from Chicago

Steve Leach, Composer

Jen, blogger from the US

Lastly, I’ve included this absolute masterpiece of a Nike commercial from 1996. Enjoy!

Monday, 19 December 2011


‘With short hair and shiny boots you can achieve anything.’ So went the advice of Arnold J Rimmer, a martinet cleaning supervisor with military pretensions and one of the central characters in the nineties sci fi comedy, Red Dwarf.
His philosophy on life bore a striking similarity to that espoused in a much more serious work, The SAS  Survival Handbook, namely, that with the right attitude and only minimal kit you can survive anywhere.
Written by SAS veteran John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman and first published in 1991 it was less a manual on survival, more an essential ‘must have’ for the generation that never went to war. There were instructions on how to light a fire with a bullet, how to gut a deer, build a cabin, cure meat, or how to make a compass with a battery and although its practical applications for the modern man were almost non-existent, it enabled the reader to talk offhandedly about the correct way to sharpen an axe or conserve body heat in an emergency as if they’d actually done it.
At the same time it was a book that could be appreciated purely for what it was – a beautifully presented collection of wisdom with great illustrations, and on this level it was just like The Joy of Sex.
You might not try all those positions demonstrated by the bearded hippy and his girlfriend, but if conversation in the pub should ever turn in that direction you could hint at tremendous expertise without the slightest chance of being called on to demonstrate.
The illustrations in the SAS Survival Handbook were pretty useful on their own and one in particular that stuck in my mind depicted how to surround your campfire with rocks to protect it from the wind. On a balmy summers evening, in the Brecon Beacons I recreated this nugget of woodsmanship using  rocks from the nearby stream, of which there were a plentiful supply.
There was no wind but as I settled down beside my now neatly enclosed fire, it was with the satisfaction of expert knowledge, expertly applied.
The first rock exploded after about twenty minutes sending jagged fragments buzzing past my ears and, grabbing my gear, I was forced to retreat hastily to the safety of the trees.  From here I was able to still smell the aroma of pine branches burning on my now useless but lethal campfire as the remaining rocks cracked and shattered in the gathering dusk.
If I’d actually bothered to read the text which accompanied the pictures I’d have learned that rocks which have been submerged in water for any length of time are prone to explode when heated, often with lethal consequences.
A wealth of knowledge resided between the covers of the SAS Survival handbook and that was always where I left it because the moment I strapped on my rucksack and set forth into the hills I’d forget the lot and later, bungling about lost, or feeling a mounting sense of rage, as one by one my damp matches sparked and went out, I’d curse myself for ignoring the advice on waterproofing them with candle wax or for skipping the chapter on navigation altogether.
Lofty Wiseman’s work has been largely eclipsed now by that of the more people-friendly Ray Mears or the more HD friendly Bear Grylls, but for me, Lofty with his trademark droopy moustache, and woollen hat pulled well down, still remains the quintessential survival expert.
In the summer I’m planning a hiking and kayaking trip from Glasgow to Inverness and this time I won’t be leaving him on the bookshelf, he’ll be coming with me because the SAS Survival Handbook is now available as an app for your android.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

One Dimensional Hero.

How refreshing it was to read the story of that guy cheating in the Keilder marathon. In the last few miles of the race he hopped on a bus and got out just before the finish line to claim third place. I almost wish he’d stopped to turn some of the signs the wrong way round as well or sprinkled itching powder down the vest of one of his rivals.
The whole story reminded me of  ‘The Tough of the Track’, a weekly strip that ran in the Victor comic. Its central character, was a middle distance and cross country runner called Alf Tupper. A tough as nails welder by trade, his victories usually owed more to tenacity and a refusal to quit than any kind of cutting edge training regime or enlightened nutritional programme.
As a low tech, one dimensional hero Tupper seemed ideally suited to the gritty black and white post war Britain he inhabited and with his staple diet of fish and chips, his chirpy demeanour and work hard, play hard ethic he seemed enviably content with his lot in life.
His adventures were never dull though, his willingness to use his fists when occasion demanded made up for a lack of guns and explosions while his highly developed sense of right and wrong, combined with his intense dislike of bullies and cheats, gave the stories an almost Dickensian feel.
The centre piece however, was always his gutsy races, often while carrying an injury or exhausted after a long shift.
Alf Tupper made his last appearance in 1992 and it’s a testament to his tenacity and stamina that he lasted as long as he did because its hard to see a place for him in Britain today. Somehow I just can’t picture him chasing looters out of HMV during the London riots, capturing images of fare dodgers on his mobile phone or downloading tracks from Spotify to listen to on his training runs.
That said the guy who was caught cheating in the Kielder marathon was not caught on a security camera or by sophisticated race technology. Instead he was bubbled by the bus driver, some of the passengers and the off duty policeman who was awarded fourth place. Alf Tupper would most certainly have approved.
And if Tintin, with his questionable past allegiances, can be brought back to life on the big screen maybe Alf Tupper will get his turn too. Certainly, given the choice between watching him beat the toffs to win the Greystone marathon or sitting through two hours of  Harry Potter casting spells and playing Quidditch, well, I’m going with ‘The Tough of the Track’ every time.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

We Are Not Alone

I'm currently working my way through We are Not Alone: the Writer's Guide to Social Media. Written by American author Kristen Lamb it is a step by step guide to building the all important online 'platform' every writer needs in today's market.

I have to admit when I knocked this blog together a week or so ago I was aware that I needed to get my message out there but had absolutely no idea where to start. For a busy and clamourous place the internet can seem rather lonely at times.

I'm only about half way through her book but already I feel much more certain of what I'm doing and where I need to go. Understanding  the importance of a brand, as opposed to simply talking about my book incessantly, has been priceless.

What's more it is not written in the style of a 'Secret of my Success' book and there is no sense of 'You too can be as wonderful as I am'. Having established her credentials early on she gets down to business in an engaging and accessable fashion and recapping at the end of each chapter makes the book easy to reference.You can read more about Kristen here.

Monday, 5 December 2011


I’ve owned a Kindle for two months now and I’m already convinced its going to change the way we read books for ever.
People who bemoan the popularity of this format often like to talk about the ‘feel’ of books or even their smell but for me the absence of these things can take nothing away from a good story. Was the soft crackle you used to get at the start of an LP really better than the ability to create a seamless playlist of all your favourite tracks? Was the enjoyment to be had in dusting the vinyl somehow worth more than being able to store your entire music collection on a device the size of a kitkat that also happens to be a phone?
And will anyone genuinely miss finding out that the Blackadder tape they had spent the last six weeks recording had been inadvertently videoed over with an hour’s worth of random channel surfing?
Books will be a tough habit to break, they are our most long lived format for conveying  and storing the written word, but the rise of digital media is hardly its death knell. A tremendous number of our best loved classics are available on Kindle very cheaply – or even for free.
As a boy I read ‘For the Term of His natural Life’ by Marcus Clarke and was enthralled by the struggles of the indomitable Rufus Dawes against the brutal gaoler Captain Frere and was chilled by the descriptions of the brutal penal colony of Van Dieman’s land.
With my Kindle I was able to find and download it with no trouble, it took me nearly four minutes and cost 96p.