11 February 2016

The real Horatio Alger


My old friend and occasional running partner James Olcott started a blog about his father Bernard a few months ago. I met Bernard once: he was a prolific inventor and the founder of the first firm in the world to harness the power of emerging computer technology to the payment of the annual fees needed to keep patents alive. He was also, his son now tells us, lots of other things, and the weekly stories make for entertaining reading as well as being highly informative about all sorts of things. James paints a vivid picture of New York in the fifties and sixties, for one thing. It is well worth a read.

The blog is sub-titled "The real Horatio Alger". It may be that American readers understand the reference at first sight. I certainly didn't. Untypically, I didn't immediately search for the information needed to fill the gap in my knowledge. I was probably too busy trying to learn Mashina Vremeni lyrics, or baking flapjacks, or watching episodes of The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed, or reading Galbraith or one of the myriad other ways in which I fill my time in preference to working.

It seems that there should have been no gap in my knowledge to begin with, for I have read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas* - in which HST (no, not High Speed Train) refers to the man several times and ends up by writing that he thinks of himself as a "monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger...a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident."

It seems to me that Thompson is confusing the man and the myth, and perhaps that James has done too. Bernard's story is a classic one of (something like) rags to riches - at least, it's about the success of the son of immigrant parents. That is the theme of Horatio Alger's work, for he was a novelist, and quite a prolific one, maybe the inventor (at least in the U.S.) of the "rags to riches" genre, although one might more accurately say "rags to middle-class respectability", which is a different (perhaps better, perhaps worse) matter. Alger himself came from a privileged though not exactly affluent background, went to Harvard (long before Galbraith), and became a Unitarian minister like his father - before being accused of "the crime of...unnatural familiarity with boys", which might deter later writers from claiming too much in the way of similarity with him. Perhaps James should compare his father with Ragged Dick rather than with that character's creator: as for HST, I think anyone with whom he compared himself is in deep, deep trouble anyway.

*No, I haven't seen the film. I haven't been able to enjoy a film made from a book I've read since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. How I am going to get on with the BBC's new War and Peace, I don't know.

08 February 2016

Blaming it all on love

It has been a long time since I ran more than 5K: quite a long time since I ran more than about a mile, in fact. Not this year, but today I changed that.

There have been many, many reasons for my lack of running. It boils down to a lack of willpower, of course. The weather doesn't help, but I missed the best of it today anyway (although I also missed the worst of it). Lucy and I set out not quite sure what was going to happen - well, Lucy never has any idea what's going to happen, as springer spaniels tend to exist only in the moment - the epitome, perhaps, of mindfulness, a topic about which I had been learning  and which I hoped to practise a little on my run.

Although the rain was holding off, it was cool (a friend who saw me setting off remarked that it made her feel cold just to see me, in tee shirt and shorts) and windy. Storm Imogen was coming in from the distant Atlantic. The wind was in my face heading out of the village, and partly so all the way along the Bargeway. Likewise when I reached the Ridgeway: I worked hard for a couple of miles before turning right to head down towards the village, and then with the wind at my back I was flying.

The time was not important, nor was the pace. I paused to take a photo, having seen with some horror how the Harwell site has grown since last I came this way. The large building in the picture, which resembles a sports stadium, is new and lies just behind the farm - and close to Dido and Aeneas, the prototype reactors.
Impossible to give a good impression of its sheer immensity, in what should be - is supposed to be - a protected landscape. I despair. Chilton is also spreading in that direction, and threatens to go even further up the hill, housing forced into open fields because the site insists on keeping room for expansion.

The point is that I forgot to restart my Watch after snapping that inadequate picture, but that I wasn't particularly bothered. It might have been interesting to see what my pace was once I hit the tarmac, with a strong tailwind, but I don't suppose it would have been particularly impressive. What mattered was that I ran, and ran for the regular nearly seven miles, and felt fine. And just a little mindful, too.