29 December 2006

Last Friday of the Month

I've not often had quite such a sense of "what the hell am I doing
here?" as I did lining up for the start of the Last Friday 5K this
lunchtime. My running vest was little protection against the cold and
rain, and I rather wished I'd worn a long-sleeved top - though the day
before it had been more than I needed for a luncthtime run.
I shouldn't have worried. Before I reached the 1K marker - at the right
pace, 3:57 on my watch - even my hands were warm enough. Up the slope
from that point towards the police station I was working hard to drag
oxygen into my lungs, and I could feel I was slowing just a little:
down the slope towards the Serpentine again I was reluctant to let
gravity take me. Under the bridge, I did what I could to attack the
gentle climb but I know I need to train to improve this part of the
course: the drag to the end of Long Water, though it's generally
downhill again, seems to go on for ever and it's hard to take it fast.
I pumped my arms and tried to lengthen my stride, but it didn't seem to
make much difference to my pace, and having rounded the end of the lake
I reached 3K - where was the 2K marker? - with 12:20 on my watch. 4:10
for each of the last two kilometres wasn't bad, but clearly 20 minutes
wasn't going to be on today (not that I had ever thought it might be!).
Here the wind started to make itself felt - I'm sure it was calm at the
start (though it was calm at the finish, too, so perhaps the wind was
only blowing out on the course) and the long haul to the Lido was
miserable, not to say lonely as the A race pulled away and B race
competitors started to pass me. Up the slope behind the Lido I closed
my eyes and worked my limbs as hard as I could manage, so I managed to
reach the top - nearly - without losing any speed. A couple of yards
short of the left turn at the top, however, I slowed a lot more than the
turn alone justified.
Along Rotten Row, I reached the 4K marker with 16:40 showing - not too
bad, given the headwind - and, gritting my teeth, put my head down and
tried to coax as much speed as possible from my legs. Approaching the
final straight, I gritted my teeth and attacked the climb before
mustering the best sprint I could for the line, which must have looked a
mess and involved me closing my eyes as well as gritting my teeth: as I
passed the 5K marker I stopped my watch on 21:22 (a very slow final K,
in spite of it all, and a whole 2 seconds faster than last time) and
immediately bent double until that familiar feeling of being about to
vomit passed.
Still plenty of room for improvement. Watch this space.
On the way back to the office, waiting to cross the road at Hyde Park
Corner, I met another competitor - he had running number 5 to my 4 (a
function solely of how far ahead we had sent in out entries). He'd done
18-something, despite missing the start and having to join the B race (I
think he passed me on the way to the Lido). As we parted, he introduced
himself as Gerard, and told me he runs a restaurant near Trafalgar
Square - Mint Leaf - "Google it", he suggested, and I did, and
immediately felt hungry.

20 December 2006

Pud Run

Some people might consider it eccentric to spend large parts of one's spare time running, so I guess that a pre-Christmas half-marathon would seem the height of eccentricity to many. Certainly, a serious race in middle of the party season has elements about it that aren't present at other times of year.
Last Sunday was in fact a near-perfect day for a run, neither too hot nor too cold, too dull nor too sunny. There was no wind, no rain, and no fog. Its greatest drawback as a day for a run (for me) lay in the fact that it followed the Writers in Oxford Christmas Party, so I had spent the previous evening drinking an unaccustomed amount of Champagne.
Being an event event for club members only, the Christmas Pud Run lacks the degree of organisation that is applied to the Abingdon Marathon. The course is of uncertain length, further extended by the insistence of county officials that it finish at a gap between two hedges either side of the path to the sports centre at Tilsley Park. This, we are told before the start, will add some 40 yards to the distance. Another reason not to try for a PB.
As with every club run I have taken part in, I set off with only a hazy notion of the route, dependent on others to lead me round. So I fell in for the first section with Andy, returning from injury and therefore for the first time ever not as fast as me, then Dave. Mile one came up in over eight minutes, which took me slightly aback, but mile two was quicker - much quicker than was really wise, or was it just that they weren't true miles? The positioning of the markers is often dictated by the availability of a lamp post rather than strictly by the measurement.
Past St Helens, a couple of miles gone, and the field was stringing out. On the bridge over the A34 I caught Dave, who pleaded that the hill slows him down. I told him that after that one at Streatley (on the Compton 40) I'll won't use the word "hill" lightly again.
The miles passed uneventfully, and not uncomfortably. No trouble with either of my knees. I began to regret wearing a long-sleeved top: in the shade it was cold, but the sun was warm and the idea that I'd come prepared with gloves and hat seemed absurd.
At four miles, by the Black Horse at Gozzards Ford (the venue for lunch with the Kochanskis on their visit to England several years ago) Chris had set up a water station and I stopped to drink. I've never mastered drinking while running, so that allowed Dave to pull away from me and it took me a while to catch him again. "I thought you were seeing how many times you could pass me today", he said, but this time I preferred to stay with him. He pointed out that there was a group ahead of us - a nice group, to use his precise words - so I suggested we chase them down: he demurred: I suggested we return to the matter after half distance: he muttered something about the hill at nine miles. I remembered Streatley again.
Just before half distance we passed the Merry Miller at Cothill - lunch with Grace and Raney, last year - where runners taking part in the relay event were waiting, so cheery greetings were exchanged. Then coming towards us, doing her warm-down, appeared a competitor I hadn't recognised, who'd passed me and disappeared into the distance on the first mile: it was good to find that she wasn't running the whole race!
By eight miles we had meandered through Dry Sandford and Wootton, where Chris was established with water outside the church where we went to Tony Slade's funeral - what, four, five years ago? I stopped to drink again, needing the water to compensate for the dehydrating activities of the previous evening, so Dave disappeared again and I set off again in company with Andy. Shortly, the road started to climb up Boars Hill, a feature which does merit the name, and soon we were among the big houses set in their own wooded grounds, behind huge gates, served by private roads. I put my head down and attacked the climb, swinging my arms and forcing the breath in and out of my chest. Reaching the top of the climb, I felt in excellent shape, and after nine miles of steady seven-and-a-half to eight-minute miling it seemed I had plenty in the tank for the last section.
Past the ten mile mark, with Andy once again dropped and Dave in sight in front, the road started to descend, quite gently at first but then, after a pause, more and more steeply. I hurtled past a man struggling uphill on a mountain bike, weaving from side to side like I do when trying to ride up a steep ascent, so I gave him plenty of space. Dave was closer, and using the downhill sections less exuberantly than me: I lengthened my stride, flailed my arms and let gravity take me - easier than fighting it. Through Bayworth and along the road towards Radley, then right down to Lodge Hill, I was reeling him in steadily. On the A34 bridge he had to dodge a briar overhanging the footpath, and seeing his evasive action I diverted along the grass verge to avoid it.
The two of us crossed the road simultaneously though still yards apart, but once I was on the correct side (and with the 12-mile marker looming) I let the hill pull me along, and suddenly I was flying by him, muttering something about a second wind as I passed.
At the foot of the hill I paused to allow a car to negotiate the roundabout, round which we had been instructed to go clockwise (so, three-quarters of a circle). Stopping on the island in the middle of the entrance to the roundabout, I felt myself falling backwards - perhaps just an illusion, after about a hundred minutes' forward motion - which I tried to check by swiftly resuming running: but my legs steadfastly refused to get going again, and I waddled to the other side of the road, then across the roundabout's next junction, by which time Dave was with me again. Passing him on the last descent now didn't seem to have been such a good idea.
"C'mon, only another half mile", he urged me, and I forced my legs to keep up with him. I stayed with him just long enough to get under way again, but all I could do was keep him in sight until we reached the entrance to Tilsley Park. From there, I could muster something resembling a dash (eyes closed, arms pumping) for the gap in the hedge, and a time of 1:44:36, which suggests I should be able to do reasonably well in my next half - if I prepare a little more sensibly.

25 November 2006

Last Friday of the Month

I still can't get this right. First, I left my watch on my desk when I rushed to get changed. Without it, my pace could be all over the place: with it, I'm still pretty erratic, but at least if I have run a kilometre in well under four minutes I want to know about my mistake.
So I had no idea how fast I covered any of the marked kilometres round the Serpentine, though I am fairly sure they varied wildly. Nor do I know what my time was, but the race started at 1230, and after finishing and getting over the feeling that I was about to die, or at least throw up over a large part of Hyde Park, and then chatting to a visitor from Washington DC, then jogging to the gate behind Apsley House, I noticed that the time on the clock at the gate house was five to one. And when the results were published my time turned out to be 21:24. Unfortunately, I misread it at first and thought that I had improved - now I find that I am a minute slower than I thought at first, so some serious training is called for.
If next time I allow a little more time to get to the start, and don't have to get to Hyde Park from the office at 5K pace, I'll be close to 20 minutes.

18 November 2006

Free-form jazz and Fairport Convention

It wasn't designed that way, but it worked out quite well.
I'd been looking forward to seeing the London date in Fairport Convention's annual autumn tour for a long time. I'd been to the equivalent gig in the previous two years, each time with Tony, who'd be glad to come along again; Ben was also keen; Chris was persuaded, although he made clear his reservations about Ric Sanders's violin-playing, and in truth there are more electronic effects than is right for a folk-rock band.
I invited Dave and Mike, and Mike introduced Patrick, so a party of seven was planned. We discussed meeting for something to eat beforehand, but then I looked at the programme for the London Jazz Festival. A free commuter concert given by Lol Coxhill on the South Bank: too good an opportunity to see a living legend to pass up, and Tony, Chris and at the last minute Dave agreed.
Ninety minutes of free-form noodling on the soprano sax isn't everyone's cup of tea, and Tony was the one of us most likely to appreciate it - which made it doubly unfortunate that he didn't show up. The great man took the stage with a drummer and a bassist, which didn't match the billing, so he promised to play solo sometime in the middle. By the time the middle came, Chris had observed that if anyone suggested going for a pizza he'd go along with the idea, and Dave too was content with less than a full quota of the living legend, though we all agreed that the drummer was pretty good. At one memorable point, he lifted up a tea towel that he'd used to muffle some part of his battery and, finding a small gong hidden beneath, struck it almost as an afterthought before putting it to one side.
It has to be said, the pizza was rather better than the jazz, but better still was the main act of the evening. And here's where the unintended consequence came in: Chris's reservations about Ric Sanders did not survive - could never have survived - exposure to Lol Coxhill. When I had first made the suggestion, Chris had initially feared exactly the opposite, that Fairport would pale after the early part of the evening, so it was a pleasure to see the the contrary happen.
My great regret was that Fairport failed to play more than a couple of classics - Now Be Thankful, and the obligatory encore Meet On The Ledge - but it's good to know that after nearly forty years they are still bringing on new material, and that in the past decade or two they have come out with some excellent songs. I think the present line-up has lasted longer - must have lasted much longer - than any previous one, and although there is now only one founding member of the band still there, fittingly it's Simon Nichol, whose family home gave the band the first part of its name.
My guests seemed to enjoy themselves, though after the interval they started to drift away. Our plan to secure a table and enough chairs failed miserably, so we had to contend with a large pillar betwee us and the band. Usefully, however, this enabled Chris to screen Ric from view, and Ben, who announced an irrational aversion to Simon Nichol, could also make use of it.
By the time they reached the encore, our group had been reduced to two - me and Chris - but we left suitably uplifted, commenting on the superiority of Meet On The Ledge to most - almost all - of the songs written since. Richard Thompson certainly knew how to put a song together: the music perfectly matches the sentiments expressed so clearly and beautifully in the lyrics.
So after forty years they are still creating excellent new music, but they also have in their songbook one of the most complete rock songs ever written (and I haven't even mentioned Who Knows Where The Time Goes). Worth catching the last train home (at 0021).

17 November 2006

Lyrics in legal articles

An interesting article - more a diary piece - in the Law Society Gazette this week reveals that an academic in the States has surveyed scholarly legal writing and analysed the use of lines from songs. I am not in the least surprised that Bob Dylan comes top of the list: a court in the States, needing to say something about the fact that expert evidence was not always necessary, borrowed the line "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows". Of course it did: a better way to express that proposition would be hard to imagine. (But should it be Weatherman with a capital W? Who remembers either the political or the musical group of that name? Did Dylan mean them when he wrote the line? Certainly, the left-wing organisation was active at that time.)
I used a quote from Dylan in the heading of a chapter of my book on Copyright, years ago, though it was his introduction to a song on the great live album of 1966. Other writers in the survey seem to resort to Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and The Grateful Dead (which reminds me, in the episode fro the first season of The West Wing that we watched last night, some six or seven years late, a flag hanging on Sam's office wall bore the motto "Don't tread on me" - which appeared in uncle John's Band). This, the writer suggested, tells us a great deal about who is writing these articles, which is not much of a revelation.
I tore the article out, because Tony - who wrote an article on trade mark dilution under the title "I hear you knocking but you can't come in", or perhaps just adapted it for the purpose - should see it. He will have ideas infinitely more recondite. I recently dug out my 1995 article on the motor vehicle distribution block exemption, "Whatevershebringswesing" (I'd better put in a link to help explain that), and of course I gave my copyright book the sub-title "A Question of Balance".
There's enormous scope here. Ben Price and I carried out a short conversation in the summer using Fairport Convention song titles - well, at least one was of a Dylan cover: "I'll keep it with mine", his response to me when I asked him for some money he owed me. How did I phrase the request? "Now be thankful" came into the exchange at a later stage. Little wonder he occupies top spot.
Another sign that winter is here is that Fairport play the 100 Club this evening: and for the third year running, I'll be there - with Ben, and Tony, and others. I'll be looking for inspiration.
The Gazette also carried a story about a trainee solicitor who had run the Athens Classic Marathon and who, it transpires, works nearby. I sent him an e-mail to congratulate him and to invite him to join us for lunchtime runs in the Royal Parks. That makes up, in a small way, for my failure to cultivate my fellow passengers.

Winter at last

This is the first morning so far this season that has felt cold, and coincidentally the morning when a little wardrobe disorganisation dictated that I travel without a coat. Waiting for the bus, the rain that was swirling around on the wind ensured that I was pretty damp by the time the bus appeared, a little later than nit should have been. The mornings are now quite dark when I leave home, too, heightening the impression of winter.
At the station, one passenger waits with his bike at the point where the door to the guard's compartment will draw up. His legs are bare, and I cannot imagine he has had an enjoyable ride. I consider asking him, but I've never spoken to him before and breaking the ice with fellow passengers is a process that has to be taken step-by-step. Although that's not how it happened in the first place.
for years I commuted with that famous English reserve, never talking to fellow travellers, until NL broke the ice one evening, introducing himself to a group of us who were sitting silently round a table and then introducing us to one another. Which is, directly, how I met Dorothy, and Chris, and The Master, and Robin; and by using the technique myself made the acquaintances of Andy, John, Julian, Lixin, a nice lady from Argentina, and many others. Nowadays, though, Coach A is populated largely with strangers. I need to practise my networking skills again.
I have started greeting one or two of these strangers whom I have seen regularly. I hope I'll have a new circle of friends before the end of the year. As a first step, I should change the habit of recent weeks and sit at a table for four instead of in a side-by-side pair of seats: facing someone is a good first step, especially compared with today when I am sitting beside a sleeping young woman wrapped in her coat, resting her head against the window with her scarf as a pillow - and she may have been in the same position all the way from Swansea. In the pocket on the seat back in front of her is a copy of A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine, one of those few books whose title is enough to make me want to read it. I won't wake her to ask if she's enjoying it, though.

06 November 2006

Monday morning: winter

Thick fog, low temperatures (though the forecast suggests it will be unseasonably warm later), delays to the trains - winter is here.
My mobile e-mail has been restored, and having my Psion back gives me something else to write about too. My neighbour on the train started cursing his laptop as soon as we pullled out of Didcot) and for all I know he had been cursing it from wherever this train started - Cheltenham, I think. He suggested that computers were the worst invention ever, and I vounteered that the computer is probably fine but what Microsoft have created to run on it is rubbish. Having a Psion gives you that feeling of superiority - how much better if I could work out how to use Linux on my laptop. I even tried over the weekend, with little success, to find a beginners' course. They are all too expensive for me. My Dummies book won't do it for me, though.
I am not going to run for a few days in the hope that my knees become a little more flexible. I have to marshal on Wednesday lunchtime anyway, and already I have not run since last Thursday. I have a visit to the chiropractor on Wednesday evening, so running will be off the agenda on Thursday too.
I have a much wittier excuse for not running, though. Last week, Vanessa sought to alleviate the boredom induced by a second circuit of Green Park by reciting London bus routes. I need some study time before I run with her again so I can keep up with the small talk.

27 October 2006

My web site

In case anyone who reads this is interested (I might say, in case anyone reads this at all, but I know what one or two people will) my web site is operational again at www.petergroves.co.uk. I'm rebuilding it as I discovered that the content has become more than a little stale over the years, so don't expect much from it just yet, but it will improve.

Time trials

On the rare occasions that I get to track training on a Thursday evening, I always pick a time trial - 1500 metres flat out, preceded by a merciless warm-up that feels as if it cannot leave enough in my legs to run 1500 metres at any pace. Yesterday (and my purpose in writing this is mainly to record the time) I did it in 5:45. It's so long since I last did one of these sessions that I don't know what time I did then. It's a long way off four-minute mile pace (which I have never had the slightest chance of getting near), but it's good to note that it's well within 4 minutes per kilometre, which is my target pace for 5 and 10K. Only one problem ...

12 September 2006

A compliment?

A reader of this blog writes: "I’ve always enjoyed writers who use litotes well". I think litotes may be slightly - very slightly - overrated. But what he doesn't say is whether he detects such a writer in this blog, or whether it was just a throw-away comment!

25 August 2006

Last Friday of the Month

After years of intending to run it, I finally organised myself to enter
the Serpentine Running Club's Last Friday of the Month 5K, the day
before I reached my half-century, and therefore my last opportunity to
better 20 minutes while in this age group.

Well, I didn't manage. I reached the first kilometre mark in 3:36, a
pace best described as crazy: it was warm and humid, and while I should
be accustomed to such conditions it was hard work. I had been late to
bed the previous night, after a visit to the Proms (Mahler 5), so I was
not as well-rested as I needed to be. After that manic initial pace, I
slowed to 4:05 for the second K and it went backwards from there until I
crossed the finish line in 20:40. An improvement from last time out, of
course, and probably a PB (I'm beginning to think that my Silverstone
half-way time wasn't really half-way), and plenty to aim for next month.

24 July 2006

Note from overground

As the train crawls through Hayes and Harlington, past the old EMI factory, I notice that on the south side of the tracks a wall of straw bales has been erected. Perhaps ‘acoustic barrier’ is more like it, as I think the railway is fenced off anyway. It’s only three or four feet high, but it probably absorbs a lot of the noise from the wheels of the passing trains and makes life more bearable in the houses alongside the track. It’s also ecologically sound – though surely it’s a not insignificant fire risk?

Dressing down

The hot weather this last week or so has encouraged a permanent dress-down culture. On the platform awaiting the 07.17 this morning, there are few suits to be seen (though at this time in the morning a suit is perfectly practical attire). The one other man wearing a suit (but not a tie) combines his dark blue pinstripes with brown shoes. He doesn’t look Italian, so I wonder what his excuse is.

Perhaps, come November, fellow-commuters will be remarking on my running kit and brightly-coloured hat and gloves.

22 July 2006

Kicking the door in

The train pulls away from Reading but suddenly there is excitement among the staff on the platform, with much waving of arms and talking into radios. Coach A is at the rear of the train today, and the action is clearly visible through my window. The train stops again before the rear has reached the end of the platform, and men in fluorescent tabards swarm around the rear power car. So do several passengers, who seem to have missed their chance to board the train when it was stationary and sense a new opportunity now.

This is what they call a technical fault, and indeed shortly the train manager announces it as precisely that. A door in the luggage compartment will not close, she tells us, and having watched several of her colleagues giving it a good kicking I guessed this to be the case. Fortunately the problem can be cured by using copious amounts of yellow-and-black striped sticky tape, and ten or fifteen minutes late we are on our way.

This evening, we have been presented with the latest written apologia from Great Western: a litany of problems that have afflicted the service this week. Suicides (or attempts), signalling problems, points failures, and speed restrictions (a precaution against rails buckling in the heat) have all played a part. Thankfully, no leaves on the line or the wrong kind of snow in the hottest July since 1911.

21 July 2006

Standard Chartered Great City Race

I told a colleague this afternoon that it felt as if I was coming to the end of my life’s work: organising the firm’s entry in the Standard Chartered Great City Race. An initial allocation of 20 places quickly filled, three more requested to accommodate all the would-be participants in the firm, then the drop-outs – rowing training, pregnancy, holiday, grandfather’s mistress’s funeral, you name it – well, I made the last one up, although I did have a delegate on a course once who disappeared at coffee time to buy a birthday card for his grandfather’s mistress: the ‘funeral’ part, I think, adds an element of surprise.
Two colleagues whose excuses didn’t impress me I had resolved not to speak to again, ever (the pregnancy I will give the benefit of the doubt). But one is now in hospital with an aneurism, and it’s hard not to be sympathetic to that. Another didn’t even offer an excuse. Otherwise, there were three injuries – OK, two injuries and a verrucca – which it’s hard to argue with. I would not wish to encourage anyone to run who wasn’t up to it.

First, the 18 remaining participants (one of whom became involved in a conference call and never made it) had to get to the start, a good couple of miles away. We quickly divided into those taking the tube and the ‘jog-overs’, who would use the trip as their warm-up. This latter group includes the usual suspects, plus another two, one of whom had pneumonia earlier in the year. Unsurprisingly, he finds it tough going – this is the tail-end of a record heatwave – and we lose him before we reach the start area. I volunteer to stop to wait for him, then just too late realise that with my running shades instead of my ‘seeing’ glasses I am the least suitable person of the five to undertake this responsibility. Fortunately, he catches up with the rest of us at the start.

I was bending down to fasten my shoelace – somehow my running shoes had become very loose, perhaps because this pair had been on loan to someone for a game of softball, and I needed to pull the laces tight – when the field moved forward towards the start. It stopped again at the exit from the HAC, and I was able to wend my way through the throng (‘excuse me … excuse me …’) to rejoin some of my team mates, whose shoe laces must have been tight enough from the outset: I was not going to allow Francis to get ahead of me if I could avoid it.

‘What’s happening?’ a tall young lady standing next to me asked. There was no apparent reason why we should have stopped at this point, but she was better placed (by a couple of inches) to see the reason, so I have little constructive to say in reply. Then the crowd moved forward a little and stopped, and she asked again, perhaps just for the sake of saying something. She was making adjustments to the iPod in her hand, arranging a programme of music to stave off the boredom that could set in during a 25-minute run, and I made a mental note to give her, and anyone else with visible earphones, a wide berth if I encountered them in the race.

The start, delayed while a broken-down taxi is removed from Moorgate, was officiated over by Paula Radcliffe, with Dave Bedford, the man whose long-distance running feats inspired me (after a delay of some twenty years) to try it myself, now running the London Marathon organising company, also in attendance. The taxi took a few minutes to remove, during which they tried heroically to keep us entertained.

Then Paula blew the horn to start the race, and the runners in front of us quickly got up to speed. The start here is spacious, unlike the exit from the Guildhall yard which was used until last year, and there was a clear, wide road stretching ahead. I settled into a steady rhythm down Moorgate, breaking it to dodge round the inevitable slow runners who had started further forward than they should, not considering how they might spoil the event for others behind them.

A quarter of a mile or so into the race, I passed iPod girl, the one who had asked me twice what was happening and I had admitted that I didn’t know. Partly to test whether she could hear anything apart from her musical selection, as I passed her I called out: ‘I know what’s happening now!’, and she heard, and grinned. And neither of us tripped over the other.

Turning right into London Wall, I suddenly felt a flood of ill-defined memories of times at London Guildhall University (before that, City Poly), as a part-time postgraduate student and later a lecturer: how many times had I crossed this road on the way to or from the building I had just run past? What would I have thought then, had I been able to see myself now, running (and, if I say it myself, at a respectable pace) round these closed streets? I’d completed my PhD long before I started running, but one evening after the half-time break in a class I was teaching years later, as I tucked into a Snickers bar and a banana, one of the students identified me as a runner, like himself, and told me he was just about to travel to South Africa to run the Comrades. As I hope I might do, one day.

The length of London Wall isn’t a long way to run, and although I knew my breathing was far from relaxed, I had run – and run longer – like this before, exhaling hard and pulling new air into my lungs. This should have been the right pace for 5K, though it would be nice to know where the Ks were. I looked at my watch: the minutes digit showed 4, and the seconds something in the twenties or thirties. At this pace, especially from the start (where going to fast is my biggest failing), the first K should have come up in 4 minutes or perhaps slightly less.

London Wall must be one of the least inspiring streets in central London, although I couldn’t see much of it with the eyewear I was using. I’m not missing much in the way of scenery, I tell myself. At the end of London Wall, there’s a roundabout (by the Museum of London, which I remember enjoying so much, back in 1979) and runners shaving inches off the distance took to the pavement to follow the tightest line. I kept to the tarmac, reminding myself that it’s softer and does less damage to the joints.

‘Hi!’ A cheery greeting came from behind me, and a split second later Francis bounded past, his strides effortless and his breathing not remotely laboured. Determined not to allow the inevitable to happen, I lengthened my stride, matching his next two paces before age (but definitely not guile) and discretion took over. I hoped I would be the first runner from the firm to finish, but the chances of that had disappeared at a stroke. In little time, he was lost to view – though that tells you as much about my eyesight as anything else.

If this was going to be several races in one - me against the clock, for a PB, the firm's team for a top 50 placing, me against Francis - then at least one of those was over already. The realisation slowed me, made my legs feel heavy and sapping my will to run. Old Broad Street went by, and someone kicked my on my left knee as I barged past him (he was running slowly and making no attempt to give way), but at the junction with Threadneedle Street a solid plastic barrier pushed the stream of runners away from the left-hand kerb, then ended abruptly, forming a haven into which I swerved, stopping.

I had little idea what I was going to do there. I felt initially as if I’d be walking from there back to the finish, and had I taken another couple of seconds over it perhaps I’d have started to rehearse the excuses I’d have to make to my colleagues. I bent over and caught my breath, then remembering Toronto started to jog along again. And I ran faster, and faster, and although I hadn’t got back to 6:30 miling, before long I was keeping up a satisfactory pace.

Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was dehydration, maybe it was poor nights’ sleep for a couple of nights. Perhaps I hadn’t eaten the right things, perhaps I had eaten to much or too little. Perhaps it was the ‘jog-over’ to warm up. I kept off the running line for the rest of the way, until I could see the finish – or at least I could see the building by which we had started – and I put on a spurt. There was still something in the tank, though many others were less fortunate and I passed a fair number of runners on the way to the finish line. Of course, it was further away than I expected, and when a marshal, trying to be encouraging no doubt, called out ‘Only 300 yards to go!’, my heart sank, but I pressed on and staggered to a halt after crossing the line (and the all-important mat that would detect my timing chip), stopping my watch on 20:46.

It took more out of me than I thought, and after collecting a bottle of water I had to spend a minute or two leaning against a barrier (stretching out my calf muscles at the same time) to recover. Then I wandered through the finish area, collecting a goodie bag (another medal and tee-shirt for my collection) and a bottle of water for which I traded in my empty. Our muster point is just the other side of a barrier, which I not-very-elegantly clamber over: Francis is already there, looking cool and relaxed, though not on this occasion changed and without the appearance of having showered. So too is Ian, which caused me not a little concern.

‘What was your time?’ I asked him: the all-important question. ‘Don’t know,’ he claimed, unconvincingly. ‘What about you?’ I show him my watch, stopped at 20:46. He was a long way ahead of me, but he muttered something about the clock being on 20-something as he finished. In fact, later that evening (the wonders of modern technology!) the results showed that he came home two seconds under 19 minutes, exactly one minute and 45 seconds faster than me (the official time gave me another three seconds’ credit). How am I ever going to make that up?

Ian reckoned his time was over 21 minutes, so I was able to stop worrying that he had come past me while I wasn’t paying attention. He must have passed me while I was making my way slowly through the goodie-bag area, or stretching and catching my breath after the finish.

The rest of the team turned up one or two at a time, everyone looking warm but very satisfied. Vanessa clambered over the barriers even less elegantly than I did, and in front of a bigger audience. Eventually, a quick head-count – in response to requests to start moving towards the pub – revealed that we were one person short. Three of us retraced our steps, locating our missing team-mate at the finish where she had needed treatment for pains in her leg - which turned out to be sciatica.

I left the others to go to the pub while I collected a goodie bag for our last finisher, then I left the HAC's ground through a different entrance and found myself back on Moorgate (or is it City Road at that point?) heading north to find the Master Gunner. The roads, almost deserted now, were still lined with barriers. A lone figure, baseball hat pulled down over his eyes, was busily turning them to create breaks in the line, presumably preparatory to their being collected and taken away. I recognised Britain's great long distance runner, sometime world 5000 metre record holder, by his luxuriant moustache, and could not resist taking a moment to pass the time of day with him - and I'm still kicking myself for my twin failures, first to help him move the barriers and second to invite him to join the team for a pint. But when I rejoin the rest, and excitedly tell some of them who I have just been talking to, one twenty-something admits he'd never heard of Dave Bedford before this evening.

19 July 2006

Global warming

I returned home mid-afternoon today, cycling from the station in the enhanced heat of the day and encountering a problem that I had never previously thought about. Half a mile or so out of Didcot, there are two right-angle bends where the road presumably follows ancient field boundaries. I attack the first at the sort of exuberant speed that I favour for this sort of manoeuvre, but find on the exit that my bike is not actually turning as much as it should. Instead, it ploughs into the verge and somehow gets out from under me, though at the modest speed resulting from the hard application of the brakes and the wheels rubbing against the high verge that doesn't cause much damage to me (none at all to the bike, except that the chain has to be put back).

In the heat, the tar has melted. Cars are positively splashing past as I re-assemble the drive to the rear wheel. I just skidded off on it.

And tomorrow, the forecasts promise, will be hotter.

A little later a client phones. 'Have I caught you at an inconvenient time?' he asks. I explain that I am cycling up a steep hill, and he expresses concern about causing me to fall off. 'I did that five minutes ago,' I tell him. 'I thought lawyers were cautious people?' he asks. 'Not intellectual property lawyers,' I tell him, and he agrees that it's not an area of law for the risk-averse.

18 July 2006

Didn't last long

Signal failure yesterday evening caused lengthy delays and overcrowded trains, although the signals in question (ast Wootton Basset) seemed distant from the train's route.

This morning there were several cancellations, attributed to signal problems at Goring, which does at least lie between Didcot and London. But why should defective signals lead to the loss of complete trains? Delays I could understand.

The train is consequently very crowded, with standing room only (sitting room, on the floor in the aisle, I finally decide). There seems to be a popular belief among some passengers that in this situation the "no mobile phones" rule is relaxed - indeed, hemmed in by fellow passengers and therefore unable to leave Coach A, I have broken the rule myself on occasion, though only with the leave of adjacent passengers. A few weeks ago I had to call home in just that situation: the gentleman opposite readily permitted me to use my phone, but I did not ask the occupant of the next seat to me, who was engrossed in a fat German book.

I should have realised, of course, that this being an Oxford train I might reasonably expect English speakers to be found reading books in any language known to humankind, and sure enough after I had made my brief call - "Can't talk - on the train - delayed - home in about 40 minutes" - he thanked me (without irony, I think and hope) for my consideration, comparing me favourably with others who phoned without clearing it first. Unironic he might have been, but it made me no less embarrassed. Why should I have been anxious to avoid an episode of incomprehension with a German-speaker? In any case, I know enough of the language to convey my question, I think. And to order a beer, and ask for directions to the toilet.

Today, an electronic beeping starts up and continues for about a minute before stopping. A passenger remarks that we can probably expect to be treated to the same thing every five minutes until we reach Paddington. In the event, it is about ten minutes before it recurs.

'It's that yellow bag', observes the same passenger, one of the fortunate minority with a seat, pointing to the rack above his head and a few feet behind him. A standing passenger, a black expression taking position on his face, snatches the yellow bag from the rack, and - perhaps misunderstanding the seated man's comment, and assuming it denoted ownership of the offending item, for it is clear that the sound comes from it - makes to drop it into his lap. It is intercepted in a neat move by another standing passenger, who places it on the floor and removes the phone that is responsible for the din, silencing it before replaing it in the bag and the bag on the rack. A round of applause greets this action, with any irony very definitely intentional, but he shows little sign of embarassment and returns to his (English) book.

17 July 2006

Tiresias rides again

Back to commuting every day, and so far so good. I qualified for a discount off my season ticket, which makes the comparison between the cost of commuting and that of renting in London even more favourable to commuting. The train was on time, there was ample space on it and it kept to schedule. The cycle ride to the station was a delight, though my leg muscles aren’t accustomed to that form of exercise, and it will only take one rainy day to ruin that aspect of my journey. I didn’t try to set any records, but no doubt I’ll soon be timing my journey. (Today I took about 20 minutes; in the past I have managed 16.)

Even after a year away from Coach A, I see several familiar faces, exchange smiles and nods with people I’ve probably never spoken to. I locked my bike up at the station: one commuter places his unicycle in the guard’s van (that should of course read ‘train manager’ rather than guard, and I don’t know what his or her van is called these days), which may be some sort of sign of the times. It takes up less space than a bike, I suppose, although this is a large-wheeled example (‘Big One’, its trade mark announces).

A perfect day for a run through the parks to the office, except that when I get going it’s immediately clear that my back pack is too heavy – and will probably split if I run far with it. At the entrance to Paddington Station, there is a small collection of British Transport Police vehicles, police officers with fluorescent jackets and sniffer dogs (one a lovely Springer spaniel) in attendance, as a reminder of all that is worst about public transport in the metropolis. Even so, I cross Praed Street and descend to the District and Circle lines. (And was one of the trains bombed a year ago not a Circle line one? I calculated that it was about five minutes ahead of the one that I took.) So I will have to rethink what I carry with me each day.

RCV, when I tell him I'm back to the daily commute, makes the remark about Tiresias that makes up the subject line of this posting. I wouldn't like readers (if there are any) to think I flatter myself: why should I, when there are others to do it for me?

14 June 2006

Bridges Race

What an excellent way to spend a lunch hour! Having tried this event (http://www.optimisefitness.com/bridges/) today, I'm going to be a regular in the future, and already have one colleague lined up to run it next month too. It's not a route I would have run otherwise, but although it goes in the unfashionable direction (that is, west from Westminster Bridge) it does have the advantage that the crowds of tourists are all downstream.

Extrapolating from my best time for 5K, I told the organisers I should be on for 14:30 depending on the course (it's not as level as Silverstone, indeed it includes a flight of steps, and bridges commonly have a significant gradient) so they gave me a 6:30 handicap. In future I won't have to turn up promptly for the start ... Andrew, whose enthusiasm for the event persuaded me along today, spotted on the organiser's list of runners that Martin's best time for this event was 15 minutes: had I known that I would have been rather less bullish.

I didn't manage to do much about the runner in front of me, but by the time I reached the end I had passed five or six other competitors (out of a field of about 20), so I guess I will be stuck with that handicap: and my watch showed 14:50 - which works out at about six-and-a-half minute miles. There's life in me yet.

Fair weather runner?

I don't often allow the weather to stand in the way of a run. Actually, now I have written that I realise how false it is. But normally, I don't worry too much about whether it's raining, cold, hot, sunny - though driving sleet would probably count as a deterrent. Generally, commuting on foot, I can't afford to let the weather dictate what I do.

I have spent evenings at the office hoping for a break in the weather, but eventually I have accepted what nature has had to offer. Last night seemed perfect anyway, so I left to run back to the flat and was about 15 minutes into the journey when the rain started. And having started, it got heavier and heavier, so I splashed my way up Lisson Grove, Grove End Road and Abbey Road and reached the flat already showered, just needing to dry off.

Unfortunately, my running kit didn't dry off quite so easily. I opened all the windows to maximise the airflow, though the atmosphere was still and humid so little movement was available. I hung vest, shorts and socks in the open windows and placed my shoes (packed with paper towels) on the windowsill: this morning, they were still soaking, and my attempts to dry the socks using a fan heater just created an undesirable smell not unlike a wet dog, scorched the socks and melted a plastic coat-hanger. My run to the office today was one of the less pleasant ones: I took it slowly, lacking energy and carrying a certain extra weight of water around my feet. With a race to do at lunchtime, I hope my energy levels will have increased!

09 May 2006

Shopping in San Antonio

I was delighted that Marek should have found this blog, expecially as (unless he has kept very quiet about it, and in conversation with me I can understand why anyone would keep it under their hat) he isn't a keen runner. He reminded me yesterday about an episode in San Antonio, and I put it to him that it had to be blogged. So here it is, Marek!

INTA was in San Antonio in 1997, I think. It was Marek's first, and we had found ourselves bumping into each other often and had become good friends, so we arranged to go to the airport together on the way home. We must have taken a taxi, because Hilary had ordered a huge consignment of rubber stamps which I had been obliged to pursue around the United States by phone until they showed up in San Antoinio. They were heavy!

It may be that we planned all along to take a trip to some shops after checking in our luggage, but when I offered up my suitcase - a difficult manoeuvre, given the weight of stamps - the airline demanded a substantial fee for taking it. Severl hundred dollars, I think. But they would take any number of items of luggage provided each was within the limit. So I put the case in a locker (not without difficulty!) and Marek and I found a cab and asked to be taken to the nearest stores where I could buy luggage and he could get his CD.

In the event, I remember that all he got was two Cokes, but one of them was very welcome to me. I got a bag, which in the end I took as hand luggage full of rubber stamps (this was before Hilary discovered unmounted ones, so there was a lot of wood in the case). At Heathrow, when I arrived, I had to lug it on my back. I have no recolleactiof of how I changed planes in Houston, as I am sure I must have done: perhaps my memory is protecting me by wiping it.

Marek found his CD later, back in Poland.

International Trademarks Association 5K

This is the biggest event in my annual calendar, for a variety of reasons not much to do with running. It's because of the occasion and the friends I run with. Still, I had planned a good time, though with hidnsight starting going to parties on Saturday and continuing until Monday is not the best preparation for a run on Tuesday. Too much food and drink, much of it of the wrong sort, and little sleep combined to put me in quite the wrong state to run 5K, or any distance come to that.

Several of my old INTA running friends weren't taking part anyway. No Villu, no Rudi (though he was there to watch and cheer us on). Paul was there but talking down his chances - sandbagging, and American runner called it, and clearly the complete opposite of sledging!). Matt, his son, claimed to be a mere jogger but Paul warned me that this was bluff. I was confident - too confident - and telling everyone who would listen to me that I had run 20 minutes a week before, and that in the first half of a 10K. It wouldn't happen today!

From the start, I kept up with the leading pack but fairly quickly dropped back. They were serious runners, and I knew I wasn't in their league, but no-one sounded as if they were about to pass me. Glancing round, I could se that there were people close behind but they were staying there.

A kilometre or more into the race, which had started on the boardwalk by Lake Ontario five miles or so west from the centre of the city - a fabulous location - we made a 180 degree turn, and although I took it wide to avoid losing speed I simply found my will and ability to kepep going had evaporated. The many items of cocktail food, last night's dinner, and more beers than I have been used to for many years (save at INTA meetings!) came together to create what seemed like a giant weight in my lower body. Three nights with little sleep, and that not good sleep, also weighed in. My legs aere like lead. I stopped.

Not for long, though, and I started to walk again. Paul and Matt had come past. Mario and Miguel passed me too. Guy Heath came past, then another couple of male runners: as the second pulled away, I set aside thoughts of retiring and broke into a run again. It was more like marathon pace than 10K, but I was running. At the 2K mark, my time was under 9 minutes, so perhaps (I thought) I can salvage something.

The feeling that had brought me to a halt seemed to be passing, so I built up my speed again. I caught one runner, then another, and as we reached the turn at the other end with under a kilometre to go to home I was within reach of Guy. As I caught him I slowed to run alongside him, though (odd, this) he seemed in no particular mood for conversation, inviting me to press on at my own speed. As the finish line neared, I found I had plenty left (why didn't I use it earlier?), but a dash for the line didn't save the race.

So I can now add something else to what I have experienced in my running: I was furious with myself. But Paul won his age group, though Matt beat him, Charles Stewart (who had told me how relieved he was to learn that Paul was in the 50-59 group) won the 60-69 group. Sylvie got a trophy for being second woman in her age group.

20 minutes would not have secured me first or second in my age group, though I suspect the two who took those places were at the botom end of the age range - unlike me. If I can run 20 next year, though, I will win the over 50s: but in fact I will be second at best, behind Rudi. I wouldn't wish him not to be able to run it!

02 May 2006

Racing at Silverstone

One of the first races I took part in - so, about 1994, I guess - was
the Silverstone 10K. Two laps of the grand prix circuit, which has to
be one of the smoothest running tracks in the world, which I completed
(I think!) in 42 minutes and 42 seconds. (I am having doubts about this
now, but I am sure that 42:42 was my best time for 10K and the only
question is whether I set it at Silverstone or elsewhere.)

There is a tremendous sense of occasion at this event, a feeling that
being allowed onto the hallowed asphalt is a very special privilege.
The low grey clouds and cool blustery wind do not dispel this feeling,
though they dilute it slightly. Hanger Straight is into the wind, and
the twists and turns that they have introduced since last I attended a
grand prix here mean that you're constantly experiencing differences in
wind direction. With the wind at my back, I sail down the slight
incline from Stowe towards Club. (Do either of those corners still
exist? The long grass on the infield at Stowe into which Jackie Stewart
disappeared on lap one in 1973 is no longer there. I shall forever rue
the day I sat next to Sir Jackie at lunch and, on account of an excess
of Irish hospitality the preceding evening/morning (this was the Society
of the Irish Motor Industry's conference), found myself unable to string
a couple of words together let alone to remind him of that episode,
which I had watched, with delight that I did not even try to conceal,
from the grandstand opposite. Peter Revson was the eventual winner, I
think, and James Hunt was fourth.)

I first went to Silverstone in 1971, with my father, to mark the end of
my O Levels. We took a two-man tent. I don't recall asthma attacks on
that occasion, but at the grand prix in 1973 and at the International
Trophy meeting (those being the days when there were three or four
opportunities to see grand prix cars, and stars, racing in England each
year) probably the same year - when we went en famille in a very
ill-considered VW Camper van - the asthma sticks in my mind much more
than the racing. If someone had told the teenage me that as I
approached my 50th birthday I would be running a couple of laps of the
circuit, I would have considered them the biggest liar that ever lived.

Times move on, though, and where we pitched our tent or parked the
camper van is now a business park. Silverstone is no longer
recognisably a World War II air base: it is all landscaped grass and
smooth tarmac. Woodcote, the greatest bend on any grand prix circuit,
has not just been emasculated: it has disappeared. So too (disappeared,
I mean) have the men (and occasional woman - a long time since a woman
raced in Formula One, probably Lella Lombardi was the last and she died
a couple of years ago from cancer. And who was that British Olympic
lady skier who had a brief Formula One career?) who raced there. I
remember (cue for a digression) in 1979, with my friend Jacques, whom I
had met (with Steve Fletcher) at Zandvoort the year before (the only
foreign grand prix I ever went to), plus his brother I think and a bunch
of his friends, elbowing our way to a good vantage point on the grass
bank at Woodcote, attracting the disapproval of everyone around us (so I
pretended for the day that the entire group of us was French!), and
Jacques asking me who I thought would win: I loyally nominated Clay
Regazzoni, to general Gallic amusement, and we were all equally
astonished when he came through to claim the first ever Grand Prix win
for a Williams car.

This evening was almost as historic. I passed the 5K mark just before
the clock tripped over to 20:00, which bodes well for the all-important
INTA 5K next week: and slowed a little on the second lap to finish in a
personal best, by some way, of 41:22. The sun broke through, too.

18 April 2006

Oxfordshire County Road Relays

Easter Sunday in Hook Norton, renowned for its real ale but I am here to run a leg of a relay race - something over three miles. Relays like this are the most bizarre events: I did this same event several years ago, volunteering then to run two legs as I could only rely on being able to run at one speed and that would probably see me round the course twice. I also ran in the Teddy Hall relay in Oxford, a couple of times: we were a team of ringers, so even our captain was a little unsure about who was involved. My instructions were to take over from the Pole. At least the team members all wore the same tee-shirts.

At the Hook Norton recreation ground (which is an extensive facility, with a football pitch, tennis courts, a pavilion, and a cricket square) there is nowhere to get out of the wind, and we wrap up warm while awaiting our turn. Our first man doesn't seem to be having a good day, and he returns well down the order. By the time I take over, on the fourth leg out of six, we are well adrift but the team ahead of us are in sight and I pass their man just after exiting the recreation ground.

The route passes through the village, and very attractive it is too, before turing left and heading out across open countryside. From there, three more right turns bring you back to where you started. There's little to see, apart from the price of diesel at The Firs garage - 99.9p - and the Witney Roadrunners member in front, who is getting closer with each step. A clubmate, jogging the course against the flow of the competitors, urges me to relax. Apart from him, and the marshals, I hardly see anyone. A relay with no more than a couple of dozen teams competing and over three miles between changeovers is a miserably boring business.

The cold at the start has tricked the Witney man and as I close in with about a mile to go he breaks his stride to remove the base layer under his running vest. I have managed to keep up the ridiculoulsy ambitious pace at which I set off, and eventually cross the line to hand over to Thornton in 21:15. Not a good time for three miles, I think to myself, but later learn that it's about half a mile more than that, so not far off six minute miling. (Thornton beats my time by ten seconds, and apologises to all concerned for being so slow - we missed third place by a narrow margin in the end.)

I cannot believe that the older I get the faster I can still run.

Abbey Road in springtime

Last Thursday was the first morning this year when it was mild enough to run in tee-shirt and shorts. The day before gloves and hat were needed: on Thursday I'd have overheated in no time.

My daily run to work is worth describing, and last Thursday was precisely the day to start to do so. Unfortunately, there has not been time to write it up as I would have wished and consequently I ended up with several thousand words (a literal myriad, perhaps) and had only reached the Abbey Road zebra crossing. However, there is one little sketch that I feel the need to include now, with the rest to come later.

A little further on from the crossing I reached the junction with St John’s Wood Road. One of the many street-sweepers employed around here rounded the corner as I approached and, seeing me coming, withdrew with a wink and let me pass. I can’t place him and his colleagues very accurately – they look possibly North African, or Middle Eastern: I often wonder what they are doing so far from home, sweeping up the rubbish left by more affluent people who should know better (with one of whom I almost exchanged blows a few evenings back – that too is another story). I make a point of greeting them each time I pass, and I hope the wink indicates that he remembered me.

09 April 2006

Reading Half Marathon

Now it's over (and I am on the train home) it seems a bit of an anticlimax. I ran it in 1:47:44 by my watch, so I didn't overexert myself, and I certainly enjoyed the run. But I had been looking forward to this race for a long time, and somehow it didn't live up to my expectations.

First, travelling to Reading by train was not the best idea. It should be obvious that train is the best way to get there - minimum impact on the environment, the fare was less than the cost of parking at the Mad Stad, and shuttle buses were laid on to get the runners from the station to the start. But to meet the organiser's demand for everyone to be at the start with an hour and a half to spare - and not forgetting that part of the purpose of the exercise was to impress the organiser, notwithstanding that he had gone off on one of his epic motorcycle trips - I needed to take the 0745 train. A slow start to the morning meant that went by the board, but the 0809 should have done the job.

Unfortunately, and despite my checking that there were no adverse indications on the train company's web site, engineering works at Oxford had taken their toll. Eventually, the 0830 showed up before the 0809 (though not until 0840), and the many customers waiting in their running apparel for a train - pretty clear where everyone is going to this morning! - took it.

'Was there anyone there you knew?' I was asked when I returned home later. Not at first, I replied, but it hadn't taken long before I had struck up a conversation with a couple of the other waiting runners. One of them, Steve, bemoaned the boredom of running, and I suggested to him that membership of a club might be the solution. Running alone, all the time, is miserable, though I was able to come up with a pretty convincing explanation of how I managed to use running time to good effect.

At the station, the realisation first dawned on me that the one thing I didn't have with me is the timing chip. Without it, I suspect that I won't even get an official time, and clearly won't be doing my standing in the club championship any good. This revelation somehow accorded with the way my mood was developing, as I put on the hat and gloves which fortunately I had remembered to pack, and still shivered on the cold platform. (Happily, I was able to get a replacement running number and chip when I arrived at the start.)

The train journey - first stop Reading - passed with a pleasant conversation with Steve and a young lady on her way to work as a lifeguard at the swimming pool in Reading, for which she was already late. Mobile phone calls at Reading station enable me to find Vanessa and Francis quite easily, but no reply from Martin's phone. I introduced Steve to them (though not, I realise, the other way round) and we took the shuttle bus.

One thing we all seem to have forgotten to do is to complete the reverse of our running numbers, where name, contact in case of emergency and any special information should be written. Vanessa asks for my mobile phone number so I can be contacted in case of an emergency befalling her - more useful, she points out, than her mother 50 miles away. Good idea, I think, and (with her consent, and indeed her active participation as she has to tell me the number) write her name and phone number on mine. She doesn't carry her phone with her during the race, it transpires, so if the worst had happened she would have picked up a voicemail message announcing my demise when she reclaimed her bag afterwards.

On our way to the start I was hailed by Rose, who was understandably doubtful about the chances of meeting up, not helped by her leaving her phone in London (on which she will find a message from me when next she switches it on). Her boyfriend James, who was to have run with us but has been unwell, is with her and ends up taking custody of the high-spec substitutes for bin liners that Vanessa and Francis are using to keep warm, which I had kept in the drawer with my running kit for years. Nice to see them used at last. I've only ever once been well-enough organised to turn up at the start of a race with a bin liner, and then it was Bob Cohen, with whose family we were staying shortly before the New York Marathon in 1998, who suggested I might benefit from one. They had a choice of sizes in the house, and Bob had to judge whether I was (from memory) a forty-gallon or a fifty-gallon man. I don't recall which we settled on, but neither could be considered flattering.

We conspicuously failed to do the most important thing for the start of a big, mass-participation, event like this: get much nearer the front than your expected time really justifies. If you don't, for the first half of the race you are passing runners who would die if they tried to run the distance at the pace indicated by their starting position. I suspect many have never run a half-marathon before, and have extrapolated their predicted time from their 5K, 1500 metres or perhaps even 400 metres personal best. Others simply don't bother about getting in the way and spoiling the event for faster runners. It is one of the reasons why I frequently resolve never again to bother with this event, or others like it, but evidently I keep forgetting that.

As it happens, today I am not bothered. Any thought of producing a fast time was frozen out of me at Didcot station, and the omission from my backpack of the timing chip (although easily enough rectified) confirmed that this was the correct decision. Far better to enjoy a gentle run in the company of my three colleagues, and see how things develop. Rose has already got in with her excuses, starting weeks ago, involving much work and little training, so the important goal of beating her to make up for her beating me two years ago in the same event has lost its significance. She now reveals that her preparation for today involved attending a friend's 30th birthday party the previous evening and retiring, the worse for drink, at 2 a.m. (Three years ago, Salma turned up for the Reading Half, the last part of our preparation for the Paris Marathon, having been out until 1 a.m. at a ceroc evening organised or instigated in some way by David Mundy, although his involvement is not material. Is this a particular thing with members of the real estate department?)

But just when I think there is no pressure on me today, Francis takes off at about the three mile mark and we do not see him again until he is waiting at the finish, changed and looking (though surely he couldn't have been) freshly showered. He's only run with us a couple of times in London, and has been ill in the weeks leading up to today. Vanessa has said that he is fast, and he seemed quick when I ran round the parks with him. Should I chase or stay where I am? I have already decided what sort of run I am out for today, and that does not involve racing the likes of him. (Back home, when I explain that he took about 15 minutes less than me to complete the course, Hilary kindly asks how old he is. That makes me feel better, though I don't know the answer exactly - I should have noted the information when I had his entry form! My guess is still under thirty.)

Another minus point for Reading is how attractive the scenery isn't. The race begins on a business park, passes into an industrial estate, then proceeds to an area of council housing where I believe there have historically been problems getting volunteers to marshal without a sigificant police presence, and residents have seen no reason to recognise road closures. From there it heads up-market and then passes through the grounds of the university before going downhill literally and metaphorically to the town centre.

There are some attractive parts of Reading, and the route this year takes in some of them - the Abbey Gate and Forbury Gardens, and some old buildings around the town hall - but this is a small proportion of the 13 miles plus. (That will be 192½ yards, I suppose. Maybe it's the 13 miles of this route that is unattractive ...) At least it's quite level, although it is on one long climb that I come across Mick and Phil, Mick pushing Phil's wheelchair, and slow down to chat to them as I've done on previous occasions when I've met them. They must average over a race a week, which would be hard going for any runner: doing it pushing a wheelchair containing a grown young man is beyond what I can imagine. It helps me place my own efforts in context.

That was shortly after I was almost run off the road by another runner who was unaware of my presence (or indeed of most of what was going on around him) for one simple reason: it wasn't just that he was listening to music, I was listening to his music. It is possible, I know, to take your preferred listening with you on a run and still take part in conversations with your running mates. Vanessa often does this when we run in London. I find that it limits conversation mainly because I am reluctant to talk to anyone who might be in the middle of listening to their favourite piece of music. Although my take on it is that I enjoy music too much to want to try to listen to it while running, I carried my MP3 player for 25 miles of the Compton Challenge, fearing that the run might get boring, but I had company nearly all the way until I dropped out and when I was alone nature provided more than enough to listen to. Reading probably isn't big on birdsong, though.

Prior to Compton, I gave some thought to what I should load on it, as (being small, on account of its having come free with a laptop I bought four years ago) it was full with two Robyn Hitchcock and about fifteen Richard Thompson songs. One evening, not running in London but taking a bus wearing my running kit, as I waited to alight a passenger standing next to me remarked 'That's rather loud'. I removed the earphones, cutting off Richard Thompson, and said 'Surely you can't hear this?' to which he replied 'Not that - your jacket!'. Anyway, I thought perhaps Thompson was not ideal for an ultramarathon, and might even exacerbate the loneliness of the long-distance runner. I toyed with the idea of loading some of my extensive collection of live versions of Dark Star, on the basis that getting as completely out of it as possible with the Grateful Dead might assist with the pain of running 40 miles, but failed to act on the idea in time. (Would it have helped?) I subsequently realised that, of course, there could only be one appropriate piece of music: Ein Heldenleben.

So, make a mental note to send Hugh an email about the undesirability of runners closing their ears to what goes on around them. And to add that when I have marshalled events I have suffered from runners unable to hear my directions, which is a direct and serious safety issue.

From the point at which Francis decided to run his own race, I stayed with, or just in front of, Rose and Vanessa. Not much point in having a social run without any socialising. We were well within 2 hour pace, Vanessa's target. The two of them did suggest I leave them to give chase to our missing colleague, but he'd been gone for three miles or so at that point and I doubted there was anything I could do about such a lead.
Eventually we came to the long stretch of the A33 heading south towards the Madejski Stadium and the finish. Rose made her feelings about this particularly tedious section of the course known. It didn't seem too bad to me, especially remembering what it had been like two years before, running into driving sleet, frozen to the bone, and with at least half-a-mile further to the finish than this year. On that earlier occasion, I had been surprised to find myself running with David Wilson, an accountant whom I knew quite well through myriad networking events, who was taking part in the relay race so was considerably fresher than me. He kindly waited for me when I lagged behind: I was having such a bad day that I resorted to counting backwards from 300, and completed several complete repeats before I reached the finish where, unsportingly, I outsprinted David to the line. This year, the endgame was much less traumatic, though it still fell some way short of being enjoyable.

In the end I didn't beat Rose, whose pace over the last mile or so turned out to be a little faster than Vanessa's. My hope that we might get a photo of the four of us wearing our Bircham Dyson Bell vests crossing the line together had long gone, and in the end so did the next best thing, but at least two of us crossed the line together, in well under two hours (it now occurs to me, in well under 1:55 which was the time for which, when asked for sponsorship, I had offered Vanessa an unquantified bonus).

On the bus back to the station (and to the bar where we are supposed to attend a client party, which is another story) we examine the medals we have been awarded. I have collected more than enough of these over the years. This year's design shows a large group of runners from the front, and Francis and Vanessa were discussing where we all feature in it. 'Francis is the one in the front, hiding his light under a bushel,' I suggest.
It feels as if this event closes a chapter. There's been a great deal of preparation, training, ordering running vests and all sorts of of other matters to attend to. After this, there won't be the same sense of purpose to our runs in London. I fear that the friends with whom I have so enjoyed running in the parks won't feel the same need to carry on. On the other hand, we do have the Great City Race in July. And perhaps another half marathon later in the year. Maybe there will still be good reason to run through the summer.

For myself, I have the INTA 5K, the Ropley 10K and perhaps the Silverstone 10K, before then. Maybe it's time for some speed work. And those terrible-sounding Kenyan Hills.

02 April 2006

White Horse Half Marathon

If last weekend wasn't as successful as I wished, this weekend has made up for it. 1 hour 32 minutes 49 seconds, which from memory (the only record I have, unfortunately) is a personal best over this distance. I did Reading in one-thirty-something years ago, with Alex and John Scarborough - must have been '98 - but I don't think it was this fast.
Apart from a personal best, my other goal was to break 1:30, so that remains to be done, probably not next weekend in Reading but who knows? Maybe Windsor in September will be the time, when I'll have a complete summer of hard training behind me. And I'll ensure I don't run 25 miles the weekend before - that was a particularly inappropriate form of preparation.
I hadn't given the matter much thought, but when I looked in at the school that served as race HQ (bumping into John Oliver, an Abingdon clubmate, as he departed for the start - or was it the North Pole? - wearing hat, fleece and gloves, while I was making do with vest and shorts) and found a large group of Abingdon Amblers, it struck me that I should find one to run with who could help pace me to my target time. There are some seriously fast people in the club, but I thought that perhaps Thornton, ahead of whom I had stayed on last week's club run for the first time ever, would fit the bill. The age difference would be in my favour, which would not be the case with any other club members I could see. He was amenable, and confirmed that he was aiming for 1:30.
From the start, we seemed to be maintaining a fast but comfortable pace. My main reservation was that Thornton seemed to be breathing with considerable difficulty, but I've encountered plenty of other runners who seemed to struggle for breath, even appeared to be about to expire, and who nevertheless managed to outrun me. At mile 1 my watch showed 6 minutes 30, which I put down to initial exuberance (I remember Mario de Justo, at the end of the INTA 5K a few years ago, asking me whether anyone had ever told me not to start so fast - I had led the race for the first half mile or so - and I had to admit that it was a common criticism). At mile 2 Thornton seemed no more comfortable and the clock showed 13 minutes. Mile 3 we covered in something more like 6:45, and I was there in 19:45, which suggests I should be able to run an excellent 5K this year; mile 4 likewise took about 6:45, and I told Thornton that I'd probably be dropping back. He told me that if I could do each mile in 6:45 I'd be home within the target time, which of course I had already calculated (in fact, my approach had been to run 7 minute miles and hope that the odd minute or two turned up from somewhere, just the sort of hopeless optimism that so often means I don't quite achieve what I want). Reminded of the origin of the word 'laconic', I pointed out that this was a pretty big 'if'.
I didn't stay with him much further. At about this point the route changes direction, and suddenly we were running into the wind - and no gentle breeze, at that. A little late for a March wind, though I've never run this race (and I have three of the souvenir mugs already on the shelf in the kitchen at home) in conditions any different from this. Right on cue, along comes an April shower, just to show that running the event in the month after the usual one isn't going to make much difference. I don't recall what my times were for the intermediate miles, but I do recall that by mile 10 I had lost the seven minute average (let alone the extra two minutes or so I had hoped to find somewhere!).
At nine miles, Andy (from the club) was taking photos and should have snapped a nice one of me, just at the point where I finally gave up using my shades, though the sun came out again a little later. I hadn't been conscious of where I stood in relation to my clubmates: I knew Thornton was long gone (he finished in 1:28 something), and one Abingdon vest had come past me, on someone I didn't recognise (turned out to be a fairly new member, another Frenchman, called Serge, a mere senior so seriously younger than me). A couple of really fast guys had disappeared after the start. When eventually I reached the finish line, I was astonished to see so many clubmates whom I had never dreamed of beating in a race crossing the line when I was already on my second mug of water. I may have been fifth home (in fact, when the results appeared I was seventh) of the Abingdon runners, and there's a good chance none of those in front of me were in my age group (though I don't know whether that counts for anything). I might start taking the club championship seriously for the rest of this season!
The great thing about a half marathon is that it's a comfortable distance. My feet didn't suffer, my legs still work, no problems with hydration (not in a rainstorm!) or nutrition, no need for a two-hour kip this afternoon. It's almost an ideal distance. So what will I do next weekend at Reading? Starting the week with only 13.1 miles in my legs already rather than 25, should I be aiming at 90 minutes or just enjoying the event?

31 March 2006

Compton Downland Challenge (continued)

Last Saturday didn’t look too promising. It rained overnight, which is exactly what you don’t need if you’re running on trails on the Berkshire Downs: I know that from long and bitter experience. But when Tor dropped me at the start, the weather was holding up, and it was even becoming brighter. Inside the school where the start and finish, race headquarters and camping for really hard ultramarathoners were situated I was surprised to find several hundred people preparing themselves for the event - I’d expected a turnout well short of the 500 maximum.

I encountered several other members of Abingdon Amblers, including Craig and Ernie who were running the long race rather than the 20 miler - what used to be referred to as a fun run. I also - eventually - found Martin, former lunchtime running companion now relocated to Reading, who is running the London Marathon this year and was using the 20 mile race as preparation for that. We walked out to the start together, and the sun was so bright I put my shades on - a dramatic change compared to the preceding few weeks. Of course, wearing the shades makes me at least a minute a mile faster, or so it feels.

I had agonised about what was suitable attire for this unprecedented adventure. Shoes I had no choice about, but I had noted on-line that more experienced trail runners proposed to use all sorts of exotic-sounding things that I hadn’t heard of. One member of the Runners’ World Forum had suggested that road shoes would be fine, however, so I worked on the basis that what I had would do the job. Long-sleeved base layer, of course, and my club vest was mandatory. Shorts? I changed my mind about them three times, finally deciding that shorts wouldn’t be enough on the Ridgeway. Waterproof jacket, just in case, though I would have to wear it. Some people were talking about carrying backpacks, but I settled for my bottle-carrier which provided a couple of pockets to carry energy gels, and I had pockets in my jacket too. Socks: I had bought a new pair of nice, thick, cushioning running socks - they would be a great help! But it turned out when I came to put them on that in a senior moment I had picked up an extra large pair, so they were no use at all.

I say goodbye to Martin at the start as I intend to set off at a conservative pace. I reckoned between 10 and 12 minute miles would get me round, and am pleased to find at the checkpoints that I was in this range, albeit at the faster end of the scale.

The starter warns us to beware of the manhole cover on the school playing field, which we have to run round before cutting off through adjacent woods. At precisely 9 o’clock he sets us off, and the manhole cover is indeed there, raised well above ground level. It could cause a nasty accident. No-one I see has any problem with it.

Through the woods, we follow each other single file, slowing at times to a walk as the path winds through the trees. then we are out of the woods and on a metalled road, off which we turn again at the first opportunity across an open field which has evidently had maize in it last season - the remains of the crop lie on the earth, along with a few miniature cobs. Fortunately the ground is reasonably firm, and the stalks of the plants make the going even better.

Even so, by the time we reach the other side and take again to a metalled road, there is enough mud on everyone’s shoes to make quite a mess. We all scrape our feet along the tarmac, stamp or wipe the mud off on the grass verge, so a large part (it seems) of the field exits through the gate and covers the road.

The time for wearing shades has already passed, so I switch to my ‘seeing glasses’ (as opposed to my ‘running glasses’, although in fact the shades do seem to assist my vision). They will not come out of my pocket again until my race is over, as it happens. So many pieces of useless equipment to carry!

The first ten miles or so pass in this vein. I chat to people, they move on, I catch new people and chat to them. The scenery is delightful, which after my study of the map is a surprise: it looked pretty bleak and empty at 1:50,000. The country is rolling, as you’d expect of the Downs, and much of the route passes through woods, which makes the going a little difficult (especially on downhill stretches, where tree roots are a hazard). At one point, despite the careful emphasis of the route description, a group of runners takes a wrong turn (Martin, close behind, follows them): apparently a marshal told them to keep left, meaning to his left, but they interpreted it to mean too take the road to the left. No, I don’t really understand either, but several people have run an extra mile before they even reach checkpoint 2.

Along one stretch - a pretty valley with farm buildings in the bottom - we are running along a farm track. It gets muddier and muddier. I am just behind an exceptionally - for a runner, almost impracticably - well-endowed young lady whom I have ascertained hails from South Africa. The mud forces us into single file along the verge. Then the verge too disappears for a couple of yards into a morass. ‘Shit!’ she calls out as she slithers through the ooze. I see it coming a little earlier than she did and keep my footing more successfully. The runner behind me doesn’t, for seconds later up goes the same cry again - ‘Shit!’ ‘Shit!’ ‘Shit!’ It could go on like this all day.

After the second checkpoint, the road leaves the village - I can’t even remember which village - and after a little while you turn a bend and there stretching ahead of you is the most enormous climb. This event is famous for it. A straggling line of ant-like figures is trudging up it as I approach. There is no possibility of running up it: indeed, it requires the assistance of hands on knees to toil up it. And from the top of the grassy slope there is yet more climbing, though first there is a rapid descent through a wood, avoiding those roots.

At the summit, the path takes us onto a road into a car park. We exit that through a kissing gate (none of that sort of thing today) and set off across open grassland. I fall in with a dark-skinned gentleman, Asian looking, probably from India or with Indian origin not far in his past, running with a woman who, it seems, is a friend or neighbour or colleague, and he is simply accompanying her, though he is set go on to run the Full Fat Forty and she just the Bare Bones Twenty.

Signs proclaim that this land is in the care of the National Trust, and the reason for that body’s interest in a Berkshire hilltop soon becomes clear. Suddenly the most beautiful view over the Thames opens up in front of us. There is the Goring gap, with Goring and Streatley laid out below us, visible through the trees we now have to run through. Just a little too English to be breathtaking, but stunning scenery nonetheless. It reminds me of the view of Anacortes from Mount Erie, where in 1995 I took part in the three-and-a-bit mile run that gained 1400 feet between start and finish (and to make it worse went a long way downhill from the start before the climb began). ‘Skagit County’s Oldest and Steepest Road Race’, it claimed, and I have no reason to dispute that claim. It came a week after my very first Marathon, and didn’t my legs know about it. (But, in the words of the poet, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. Eleven years on, my legs work much better.)

But this isn’t a time for stopping to enjoy the view. At least, at 12 or 13 miles, that doesn’t seem to be the right approach - only later do I realise that stopping, walking, running a bit, walking again, is the way to cover 40 miles. Perhaps my problem - the problem that I don’t yet know I have - is that by the time I understand that it’s too late. I’m still happy to be doing ten minute miles. I don’t think I know how to run much slower.

Then we reach the descent, which is probably pretty similar to the initial climb - well-cropped grassland, a fairly even surface on which to run. My Indian acquaintance comes hurtling past me, and I suggest he must be mad: but he takes the trouble to explain that this is fell running technique. I give in to gravity and descend the hill in increasingly frantic bounds. There’s another kissing gate at the bottom, and I use the surrounding fencing rails to stop my headlong dash.

‘That’s what makes a successful fell runner’, my new friend explains. ‘It’s not how fast you go up, it’s all about how fast you come down.’ I file away that useful intelligence: anyway, I enjoyed the experience, though I’ll wait a while before repeating it, because the climb that is the essential precursor to the descent is bit tougher. Looking back, perhaps it’s like downhill skiing in some ways, and maybe I should try that too. One day.

The road leads us past the golf club, and I dimly recall that we have friends who live up here. I owe him lunch - his office is close to mine. and we met for lunch a few months ago. Must remember to give him a call, or send an email. But I can’t work out which is their house, if indeed it is along here.

I have passed, been passed by, repassed and been passed again by, a lady from Headington Roadrunners (whose August bank holiday 5 mile race I have run several times, and enjoyed greatly). I pass her again, and then she passes me. and I remark on the game of cat and mouse we are playing. We compare notes, and something I say, some remark about hills, prompts her to alert me to a climb we are coming to. As I am walking at this point, I tell her I’ll carry on walking if that’s the case. Already my plans for the day are beginning to unravel, though the main reason for that seems to be that they weren’t very good plans.

As I write, my train has just pulled into the station at Goring and Streatley. There is a small hill over to the left hand side. It doesn’t look like much of a climb, though. That immense peak we scaled, almost high enough to require breathing apparatus, must be concealed behind something. Where can it be?

Checkpoint 3 is just outside Aldworth, in a farmyard. Later I read competitors’ comments about having to trudge through manure. Maybe I am just inured to it, with three horses in the family, but that doesn’t stick in my mind. Perhaps if I had felt the need of one of the egg sandwiches on offer I’d have paid more attention to the environment - and turned down the sandwich. Nor do I recall the approach to the farm being particularly tedious.

I fall in with Simon and Trish, members of my running club, about here. Simon has gone out faster than me and now realises that it’s not the right day for this. It’s just a state of mind thing: you can’t run, 40 miles or 20, if your head is not in perfect condition for it. His wasn’t that day, nor was that of another clubmate, Dave, who joined us shortly afterwards, and nor, I was coming to realise, was mine. If it had defeated Simon, I could accept that it could defeat me.

It starts to rain and the zip on my jacket refuses to fasten. Somehow that minor irritation is the last straw. Otherwise, the few miles to Compton were unremarkable. For the 20 milers, they would have been a period of triumph, even if painful too, but for the 40 mile contingent it was another matter altogether. And clearly some of the 20 milers were having a miserable time. In Compton the routes split, and I presented myself at the checkpoint and took some refreshments. I also waited until there were a few people heading off towards Chilton before I started myself. Better to run with someone than all alone.

On the road up to the Ridgeway I used the mobile phone that I was carrying to enable me to report back to home that I would be stopping when I got there. Plan A had been to phone ahead and order a bowl of porridge (and now, I realise, I must add a sugary cappuccino to that order next year), and plan B didn’t bear thinking about. I thought this stretch, using the tracks I was so familiar with from hundreds of weekend runs, would be a breeze, but in fact it’s not just that the running’s not a breeze, the wind isn’t what you’d call a breeze either.

I use the mobile ‘phone again to send a SMS to David Innes, the one person who I feel I should tell about my impending retirement. (When next I see him, he is surprised that I did so during the race.) After doing that, I am into the end of South Row and almost in Chilton.

Two runners come up behind me and I stand aside to let them pass. As they come by, I explain that I’m in no hurry as I am stopping shortly when I reach home. ‘Do you post in the Runner’s World forum?’ one of them asks me. Indeed I do (and I have been telling members of that forum for several days that I’ll have trouble passing my own house: there have been suggestions that other runners might stop by for lunch, or tea and cakes depending on their arrival time). ‘I’m Gobi’, he says, and the other one is Colin – who had, tongue in cheek, invited himself for refreshments. I fall in with them and we walk/jog/walk up the long climb, chatting as we go, until we reach the next checkpoint. We stock up there, and continue through the village until I reach home, where I reluctantly leave them.

There is no way I could have done another 15 miles at that stage. Colin and Gobi both finish, and Colin does a 16 miler the following day. My feet are tired and the toes of my left foot feel as if they have been crunched up into too small a space, although there appears to be plenty of width in my shoes. This happened on the Abingdon Marathon last year too. A shoe consultation, and probably a new pair, is likely to be needed.

At home, I eat voraciously, although I haven’t felt hungry on the run. I take a nice warm shower, and lie down for a nap that lasts two hours (so clearly I was tired). I make myself a cappuccino and come alive again when I drink it, which is what makes me think my feeding plan needs some modification. (Next year, I can proceed from one pub to the next, phoning ahead for cappuccinos to keep me going – that last twist being Tor’s suggestion.) I am disappointed with myself, with my training, with my failure to get extra rest and sleep in the preceding week, and with my aching feet, but the next day I can run up and down stairs and by Tuesday, as already recounted, I can do the club run (and do it fast). I only allowed eight days between this experiment and the White Horse Half Marathon, and had I completed the Forty I’d have struggled with the Half: now perhaps, far from struggling, I’ll get that personal best. If only I could remember what my personal best is. About 1:35.

30 March 2006

Oxford Literary Festival continued

Cover of "Lawless World: America and the ...
Cover via Amazon
I convinced myself, largely by failing to look at my diary, that the session I was to look after today was two hours later than in fact it was. I realised my mistake when I should already have been at the Festival, i.e. an hour before the session started. By dint of some furious driving and a happy piece of timing on the part of the park-and-ride bus, I made it to the Green Room with ten minutes to spare, found my speaker and left him in the hands of the Festival photographer while I checked the room.
Philippe Sands is an academic lawyer at UCL and a practising barrister, in Matrix Chambers: I was tempted to say something about Matrix being second only to Fountain Court as a centre of political power, and after hearing his talk I am pleased that I refrained. He turned out to be a delightful man, pleased to have me look after him (as with the others, I did pretty much nothing) and happy to chat in the limited time available. I made a real mess of introducing him, which I could have done so much better, but at least raised a chuckle from the audience when I mentioned that Philippe was, like me, an author of legal textbooks for which he claimed sales of 'about 11 1/2', which I indicated made me rather envious. With Lawless World, he has something approaching a bestseller on his hands. I imagine it will comfortably be the highest-selling book on international law in history.
He has a fascinating and exciting story to tell, though he talks around the book rather than repeating it and concentrates on the government's handling of the run-up to the Iraq war. His thesis is that the Atlantic Charter, which underpinned the development of political and economic systems throughout the world and established the rule of law as the basis of government, has been dumped by the very nations whose leaders created it. It is compelling stuff, and I am ashamed when I realise that so much of it has passed me by.
Twenty or thirty years ago I would have been pretty well-informed about all this. I'd have read about it in the papers, heard about it on the radio, even seen something on the television. I'd have discussed it at political meetings, I'd have formed opinions (I tended to do that in my political days, although it went against the orthodoxy of Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Party), and I'd have expressed them. Which is part of the reason why, unlike many of my contemporaries, I advanced no further than fighting a hopeless seat, the essential starting point for all but the highest fliers. That, and other reasons too numerous to mention.
In the seventies and eighties, the only outlet for political interests was involvement in a political party. There were plenty to choose from, too, though only for those who wished to remain outside the mainstream, which never appealed to me. At university, where I made my first tentative steps in politics (leaving aside my triumph in my school's mock election at the time of the February '72 General), the Communist Party (by which I mean, of course, the CPGB rather than the avowedly Marxist-Leninist one) was pretty mainstream, and even some of the Trots were regarded as fairly moderate. Now, political parties attract little support, and political energy tends to be directed towards single issues. So I hear, anyway. I have no political energy left. It evaporated during John Major's premiership.
The Iraq War is just the sort of issue that clearly has got a lot of people engaged, hence the full room for Philippe's talk. And I love the tales of disarray in the Labour government, how the election would have been lost had the Attorney-General's opinion been leaked just four days later, and how the chief of staff refused to go to war on the strength of the original version of that opinion.
I enjoyed international law at university. I have always considered myself lucky to be practising intellectual property law, which seems to be so much more interesting and exciting than other areas of law, but here is something that's right at the centre of the most critical political issues of the time, legal questions on which governments might stand or fall. I was part of that once: now, it seems a long way away.
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