Writing Archive

Blog, Novel Writing, Writing

Working with outlines, doing away with time

6896054295_22c4a258fc_zThe other day I said I’d go and meet H at 1230. We arranged this a couple of hours earlier. There was no fixed reason why 1230, other than I thought it would be a good time, and I’d be hungry for lunch.

When the time came around, I was not quite finished what I was working on, or had done the chores I’d wanted to do–reactivate my library card, borrow Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense–but the 1230 deadline loomed over me to the point where I began to get uptight about it. H was going nowhere. She was in her studio making stuff. There was nothing we had to be at or go to afterwards. 1230 was not precious. And yet I’d made it so–a strict appointment that it would be awful to miss.

For some reason, that day, I began to question why this was. Perhaps because we’d talked earlier in the week about what irked us more, someone being late or someone running an event, giving a talk, etc, overunning at the end into your time. (Note: for me, the latter.) Or perhaps it was because we’d set the time to meet only two hours ahead, and so its complete arbitrariness was more apparent. But essentially it dawned on me, as it has not before, that this was an ingrained pattern, nothing to do with my conscious or rational understanding of what in fact was in front of us. It was something highly emotional, charged, and hidden. That is: something from my childhood.

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Blog, Running, Writing

Running and academia: the intellectual aspect of pounding the pavements

This article was originally published on the Guardian running blog

Running has become socio-cosmic,” anthropologist Allen Abramson announces to his attentive audience, a group of artists, academics, writers and, collectively, runners, gathered at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. What he means by this, I think, is that running is now everywhere. Even – as the first International Festival of Running (Run Run Run, or #r3fest) hosted by University College London last week attests – in the hallowed halls of the academic department, where such highfalutin claims are not, as they might be on the track, out of place.

But outside sports science, what interest does running have for the academic? And is running safe in our hands (or should that be shoes)?

About 50 of us have come for this inaugural conference, which is also the beginnings of a new Running Research Network, exploring the intersections of the scientific with the spiritual, cultural and political sides of the thing we all love to do – and now also to study. What is clear, however, from the footwear as much as the debate, is that we’re runners first and foremost.

“We were worried it was just going to be the two of us,” says Alan Latham, a senior lecturer in the department of geography at UCL, of himself and his co-organiser, the artist Kai Syng Tan. “But the response has been phenomenal.”

They needn’t have worried. As the popularity of running has exploded in parks and on the pavements, an interest in exploring it has grown in academic departments. One of the joys of this interest, keenly felt in the positive atmosphere of the festival, is that it draws people from all walks: the philosophers, the anthropologists, the performance artists, graphic designers, cultural geographers, English departments, music and meditation experts.

Perhaps only at a running conference would you get the choice over lunch of a running film festival; an injury clinic with Dr Courtney Kipps, the medical director of the London Triathlon; or guided breathing with Devashishu Torpy, the UK Peace Run coordinator. I opted for the meditation, attracted by the relation of long-distance running to self-transendence that has grown out of the Sri Chinmoy school of Buddhism, which combines spirituality with marathons.

What, no option of running? That was later, at 2.50pm, with Collectif Totem, a group of geographers and town planners from France and Italy who are mapping cities through running.

The conference’s wide appeal is perhaps due to what “runner geographer” Hayden Lorimer describes as the “mythical and mundane” nature of running. Mythical in its origins and stories, from the Greek goddess Nike to today’s feats of ultra-endurance. Mundane in the earthy and physical nature of planting your feet on to the earth, and the practicalities that requires.

As if to prove his metaphor, we’re treated to a 45-minute exploration in excruciating detail of Lorimer’s feet. While he gives the opening keynote, a webcam is focused on his calloused toes, the missing toenail he lost on the incline up Sentinel Dome in Yosemite national nark, the torn skin across the balls of his feet after coming down a mountain in Tenerife. It is the perfect opening and the ideal riposte to claims that academia does not have its feet on the ground. Here they are in all their grimy, battered glory.

“I’ve not lost a toenail yet,” says Latham as he shows me around his Museum of Running, a collection of some of the first magazines, shoes and memorabilia from the beginnings of the running phenomenon in the 1960s and 70s, including the first ever published weekly training plan from Eugene, Oregon – home of Mo Farah’s Nike Project team. “Perhaps I’m not a real runner until I do.”

Some of the work being produced by artists and academics with and through their running throws a new light on the wider cultural, perhaps even political, implications of running. Véronique Chance’s wonderful Great Orbital Run, a nine-day, 150-mile run around London, is not only an endurance event mapped on to a 10x10ft wall hanging, but also a commentary on the status of negotiating a global city, with its uncharted waste grounds, traffic problems, pollution and hidden beauty. It is every bit as provocative and insightful as Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital.

With Ivo Gormley’s GoodGym project on show, what was really being explored is what another academic, Dr Russell Hitchings, called the phenomenon of “green exercise”, and the implications of how much better for you running in open green spaces can be over time in the gym.

“The idea of the conference was to bring people together and really see what all the difference disciplines could learn from one another,” says Tan – a little like the “motion-controlled collisions” of a thousand footfalls hitting the ground. “There will definitely be a second conference,” she continues. Around her neck are the whistle and stopwatch with which she timed, and then abruptly stopped, the conference papers after a firm eight minutes. Perhaps other conferences could take a leaf out of #r3fest’s book.

Non-Fiction, Writing

Non-fiction piece published in Swamp 14

Pleased to have a piece published in the new issue of SWAMP writing, published out of the University of Newcastle, Australia.

The piece has gestated for a long while, so it’s very good to have gone back to it, edited, submitted, edited again with the wise guidance of SWAMP’s editor, Amy Lovat, and to see the piece out in the world. It’s about the relationship between fathers, loss, writing and especially writing a PhD, and is indebted to Professor Nicholas Royle and his novel Quilt.

You can read the piece here: How to gain a PhD while losing a father

Novel Writing, Writing

The vague feeling of love

(A short exercise in “putting the problem into the writing” based on a character from my novel.)

emotionally vagueThe vague feeling of love

And he knew somehow that the vague feeling was not love itself but only the thoughts he had about love, which is why it was not a true feeling, what the analyst William James was calling a primary emotion, but rather just a thought about it, masquerading as the real thing, for where the real thing ought to be, he supposed, was an absence. Thought loves a vacuum.

And yet what this vague feeling was, was definitely a feeling – he felt it, even if his feeling processes were disordered, and to feel it he had to see it as a fantasy, a story inside his head on the cinema screen that ran just inside his brow (and how did people imagine thoughts before the cinema?). Were thoughts not feelings too?

He knows they could be the interpretation of the feeling anyway. That was it. An interpretation. And quite simply he had not yet fully translated the affect, the energy he felt for her, into a story he could make sense of. That’s why it remained vague, like the ideas he would put into his writing – and why this sense of love, or love as a possibility, or more precisely, not love, but simply her, Marine, as the symbol of possibility, was so closely linked, in its vagueness, to writing as a process. Both were processes in formation. Both began as fantasy in the mind. Both had a number of possible outcomes, from the utopian (publication, marriage, sensualness, fame) to the disastrous, and then worse than the disastrous, the absent, the never-happened.

It was perhaps why he had so many relationships with women that ended rather badly—and also why so far his writing had not brought him the life he desired, and knew—or at least idealised that it would or could bring him. He would rather leap into the relationship with a new lover who had entered his fantasies than forego the chance of it ever happening. That loss—the loss of the fantasy constructed in his head—was too difficult to bear. The real loss—of the girl, of the love, of the relationship, was much easier to let go, although not altogether painless. It was also why perhaps much of his work had not yet found its way into print. He was too indiscriminate. He jumped into ideas before he was committed to them, and then his energies waned, and he let the stories go, unfinished, unpolished. He did not let go easily ideas that were not his to write. Rather, he wanted everything he thought to become real. This was the boundless child, he knew, who was magical, and at the centre of his world.

Although no, that was not true. Not totally true. Rather love and writing to him seemed complementary, or opposite in their attraction. Although, yes, the thought that they stemmed from the same source, seemed to him to be true. It all began with the imagined ideal, it all began with thinking “what if?” and then conjuring up scenarios.

Was that writing? Yes.

Was that also love?

The vague feeling returned. As did Marine with a coffee pot and two cups.

(c) Image via Emotionally Vague

Activism, Novel Writing, The Fire Bible, VB40, Writing

World Vegan Day (of the Dead)

“If you could plant one seed,” David asks Esther, “what would it be?”

He didn’t mean the seed of a vegetable or flower; but he suppose he might have, and that she would respond like that. She was always far more literal than he was. Her favourite joke was the one where a woman, after being with her boyfriend for two years, asked him, “Should we talk about the future?” And he replies, “what, you mean flying cars and things?” Even though for them it was the other way round. David was always the one worried about the future.

It was November 1st. It used to be the day before his birthday, when they remembered birthdays, when then was still a calendar. David carries an old almanac and records the passage of days in it. It was also World Vegan Day, he remembers suddenly, when there was collective action, when there were vegans, when there was something that resembled a world into which celebrations or commemorations could be brought to mind, with some conjuring of pleasure, peace. World Vegan Day. It made no sense any more.

“Any seed,” she says. She is thinking. She has crossed her legs and is pointing her toes. Beyond her the tall pines are swaying in a light wind that has picked up suddenly. He sniffs the air for scents, human, animal. There is only the sap.

“It doesn’t have to be literal,” he says. He is thinking all of a sudden of an article he read once, by an academic he used to like, someone who wrote about animals, he read it, he realises, exactly on this date, November 1st, many years ago. He was an academic then. He had begun to care. And then it all got fucked up anyway, and the world collapsed, but he’d been caught caring and it stuck, like that old childhood scare story of pulling a face one too many times and it sticking.

“The tasks we perform to reproduce our biological existence are all politically and culturally relevant,” wrote the academic James Stanescu, in his article. “What food to eat and how to eat it, what shelters to build and how to arrange them, what clothes to wear and when to wear them: these are markers or culture; these are all markers of the political.”

And he thought at the time–and what about who to love and how to love them? Who to communicate with and how we communicate with them?

“You know what today used to be?” Esther asks him, out of the green-blue sky that is still swinging, shifting behind her head. He is startled. He did not think she would know either what day it was in the old calendar, nor remember that they were once not the only two vegans on the planet. At least the continent.

“Dia de Muertos,” she says. He is confused. She cocks her head at him, smiles. “The Day of the Dead. In Mexico. Remember? They all get dressed up. Like Hallowe’en. They celebrate the lives of the family and friends they’ve lost.”

He is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the clearing. Below him he watches an ant, oblivious, walk across a grass stalk. Maybe she went to Mexico with other people, he thinks, before he arrived. But there were enough Mexicans in Santa Cruz to mark the occasion, of course. The students would have picked up on the theme.

“I remember,” he says. “You know it’s World Vegan Day, too. Was.”

She looks at him, and doesn’t turn away. “It still is.”

“Is it?”

She leans over and takes his hand. “While we are still here. Yes.”

“So it’s the day of the dead too,” he says. “Still.”

“And your birthday,” she says. She smiles. “Well, tomorrow of course. Did you think I would forget?”

He laughs despite himself. Why despite? Because, outrageously, there is the hope that she has made him a present. Even a cake? No, impossible. But a present. And for a moment he has a surge of pleasure in his gut, that rushes through into his chest, that it is all okay, that it is still 2014 or 2017 before they lost the sanctuary, and he has to turn away because there are at least two conflicting measures of hurt and love in his face and to be the spectacle of grief, all of a sudden, on this day, when she is being so caring, would drive him insane.

She sits back, turns away. It was too late, anyway.

“Mourning,” she says, after a while, after they have both listened to the absences of the forest for a little while, long enough. “Corpses. The seed of remembering the dead.”

So we don’t lose any more,” he says quickly.

“So we can get on with loving,” she says instead.

She stands up, and offers her hand. He takes it. She pulls him up, and then walk a little way, leaving their gear, but no-one is close, they have smelt nothing, heard nothing, they are safe here tonight. They walk a little way through the trees, the dead pine needles soft underfoot, and they find a small rise from where they can look back down over the valley they have passaged. And they are both thinking, he knows, of their flock and pigs, of Bruce and Django, of Pale and King, of Lucy, of each of the animals they had taken in and cared for before the raid happened, and they were all slaughtered, and he could hear the moans of the three cows, a sound people used to think was normal, but what was ever normal in that world? And for some reason he thinks of a woman who was a friend once, who became over-dependent, and manipulative, and how he spent weeks frustrated with her, angry, until he learnt the Buddhist trick of carrying around with him a spoon to pick up and put down again like unwanted thoughts and emotions, to wash the spoon when done with, in forgiveness. To forget. How much energy and life he wasted on anger. And yet if he met the people now who took his animals, who slaughtered them with no compunction nor grace nor compassion, he would kill them, still. Carve their hearts out with that spoon.

“I didn’t think you’d come up with an abstract noun,” he says to Esther.

She laughs as loudly as she had done in a long while. Doubles up, even. He laughs too. She stands, kisses him.

“And there was me thinking I was not the romantic,” she says.


Later, before it gets too dark, he begins to write in the new bible. He is recalling as well as he can the words he remembers from that article he read on this day however many years ago–seven or eight, he thinks. But no, he can work it out. Today is November 1st 2018. So it could have been, only… he was in Santa Cruz. Working. It must have been 2013. The year of the badger cull in England. The year Tyson Foods sold their production to the Chinese. The year he thought it had begun, this awakening to what they were doing. The year before he had the idea for the sanctuary. Or rather, he smiles, not the idea, but the compulsion, and the accident of Bruce, the feisty Toggenburg, a beautiful sage coat, once he’d recovered from the abuse, once they had fed him, and gained his trust.

So he recalls as well as he can. It is the right subject, full of earth, and soil, and sadness. It is a lesson he wants the future to remember that he remembered.

Earth Ch. 23 V.3: Seeds of Mourning
“Mourning sets up connections. The most obvious one is toward the precarious life we are grieving. But mourning also has the possibility of introducing a community, a social reality of those who also mourn the passing of that life. We who mourn other animals, particularly those killed by humans for humans, are going to have to risk much for our recognition of that mourning. The first hope is the more we talk about it, the more we risk our social intelligibility, the more we will find others who will mourn with us, we will find others who understand the loss of these others. As we strive to make ghostly connections to slaughtered animals real, we will also make connections with others. In this sense, the social intelligibility of mourning is never permanent, but exists at every iteration of mourning. It can be changed at any moment, and every time we iterate that grief is a possibility for that change.” – James Stanescu, Summer 2012.

Mourning is perpetual, he adds in his own coda to this Verse.

Can one live in perpetual mourning? He looks up, sees Esther whittling at another icon. He remembers the touch of her hand, the hardness of her skin. Her words from earlier. While we are still here. Yes.

(Extract from a work in progress, a novel about boy-meets-girl as the world collapses and their attempts to build a sanctuary for animals in the new future)

Image (C) Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals

Poetry, Readings, Writing, Writing Blog

Performance at Eat our Words: Newcastle Eat Festival!

IXjyirssr_K77rWODj20GMIJV6MEwBVXg44Jwe9kK1YAs one of a baker’s dozen or so writers, I performed a couple of short pieces on the theme of either tea, cheese or cake as part of the Speakeasy Salon, which itself was tucked up like a layer of cream and jam in the Eat! Festival. Big thanks to Chloe Daykin and Helen Limon for the organisational wonders, and for the audience member who ate my vegan carrot cake and didn’t either spit it out or die.4cJ-G2l1MFN7i6EZsVtF69LsNpU1JXnEHA1da6m7A9o

Here’s the four pieces I wrote for the event, only two of which were read out (guess which ones).



Each morning before lunch, after he’d swept the floor to earn money for schooling, Gwale would go out to the garden and climb the avocado tree and pick us the best fruits for our dessert. I was terrified of the tree, not for its height, which was larger than I ever imagined, ignorant of how avocados grew, but for the lace of web dipping between branches, the potency of the arachnids who lived amongst places where, if I were stuck, which I knew, from my childhood climbing our plum tree, could happen, I would have to face their brown scurry. My colleagues, mostly Zambian, ate their avocados sprinkled with sugar, as we do grapefruit. It was many years later, while reading Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar and finally realising that Miss Shug meant Miss Sugar, that I understood what sugar might mean to Africans, and why my colleague Siviwe put between fifteen and twenty teaspoons of sugar in each cup of tea, each morning and afternoon, right up until his disappearance, only noticing he had gone when his avocado halves remained un-sprinkled and uneaten.

First Date with Oysters (based on crimes committed by the author)

It could not have gone any better. You squealed with something near delight when you saw it was Planet Hollywood, our table under the Sinatra, the very finest of the plastic memorabilia. You squeezed my arm when I told the waiter to ‘come on, fill the glass up, I’m not paying for a dribble’. Sure the king prawns were a little crunchy, but wasn’t that the fun bit? You laughed perhaps too hard when I took the chilli bowl, not the ginger, to clear my palate. And okay, Tabasco is not for snorting. Perhaps I should’ve known that blue meant red, that corked didn’t mean unopened, that sweetbreads weren’t, well, sweet bread. But none of that mattered. It could not have gotten any better. And then it did. Big, grey, gloopy oysters for dessert, I gobbled greedily. ‘But we didn’t order Oysters,’ you said, not touching your plate.

The Kindness of Strangers (also a true story)

No-wonder Dunja did not date Westerners. In the fat of the war, as Milosevic besieged Sarajevo and every other city across Bosnia, the West, sending convoys to her aid, did not discriminate in the foods they sent. To Tuzla, sixty days under the sniper, arrived one morning in a Red Cross-bartered ceasefire, three trucks from Catalonia filled with sodium chloride. The white stuff, seasoning, vinegar’s other half, life’s essential solution-reactor, and, thought Spain, foodstuff’s symbolic saviour. Of course, Tuzla is the only city in Europe with its own salt lake. In Ottoman Turkish, it means ‘salt’. So the Tuzlans, under the eyes of the Red Cross and unbelieving snipers, poured those truckloads straight into the Pannonian. (And Ivana from Croatia, I soon discovered, was more amenable to the gut flora of foreigners.)

Obituary for a fillet steak

My friend, Cow 269, a Belgian Blue,
Who passed nine days ago at target weight,
Of fourteen-hundred pounds minus his hide.
Who was once sprayed with silver paint by teens
Causing trouble for grazing on’t Town Moor,
And who rubbed his nose against a lamppost
To cheer on my Park Run personal best.
Was this week fed to a hundred diners
At Blackfriars. He was clipped in a crush
as I clip my own hair. Stunned, cut up, cured.
He is survived, for now, by ten billion more.

Activism, Writing

Lee Halpin was too young to die for a story – even one that needed telling

This article was originally published on the Guardian Northerner Blog

I am angry with Lee Halpin. I am angry because, as a journalism educator and as a friend, I cannot get my head around his loss. He was too young to give his life away in pursuit of a story – even one that needed telling. He needed to make this film. As many have said in their tributes, he was a brave journalist with necessary and original things to say.

Lee HalpinI met Lee during a writing workshop three years ago. He was feisty, generous with his comments, nattily dressed, interested in the voices of others. When Lee and his friend Kerry Kitchin launched the arts and culture magazine Novel, I asked them to run a journalism class for me. Lee commanded the room of aspiring writers with an attention to detail and maturity that belied his age – he was only 24 at the time.

Lee was not my student, but he was a courageous journalist who was willing to tackle difficult stories by placing himself in dangerous and frightening situations. I wish he had been my student – maybe then we would have talked about fearlessness in covering a story.

Lee was investigating the rise in homelessness and the repercussions of the ‘bedroom tax’ in the North East. His body was found in a derelict hostel on Westgate Road in the city’s West End. He was following the story as part of a call by Channel 4’s Dispatches on ‘fearless journalism’ to win a 12-month contract. He had set out to “sleep rough, scrounge for my food, interact with homeless people and immerse myself in that lifestyle as deeply as I can”.

Lee believed the issue of homelessness was “politically, socially and culturally” important, especially in the region. Official figures from March show homelessness has increased 10% in the last year and, according to his contact at the Crisis Centre in the city, the figure of those sleeping rough had risen by 31%.

Socrates defined courage as the knowledge of what is and is not to be feared; not every fear should be ignored. Perhaps those who had slept rough all winter knew it was too cold a night to stay out – Lee had earlier put out a tweet for a sleeping bag. Perhaps they knew better than to sleep in derelict buildings. The cause of death has not yet been found – but it is certain his fearlessness contributed to his death.

I came up against my own limits as a journalist when I was offered a role in Palestine. I didn’t go, partly because of fear of the situation. I am now trying to understand what has happened to Lee for my students, who I want to encourage to be curious, courageous journalists. Where is the boundary? When is fear a good fear? How do you combine fearlessness with safety, with knowing when to step away? In his final video for the competition Lee said his approach “certainly feels brave from where I’m sitting now”. He cannot be criticised for that. But I’m still angry with him for it.

“Trash the supplements, trash the columnists, fire the editorial writers but don’t fire the frontline reporters,” said Andrew Marr in 2008, awarding another friend and fearless reporter, the Times’ Deborah Haynes, with her investigative journalism award into the plight of Iraqi translators working with the British.

Lee was a frontline reporter at the beginning of his career. I am angry with Lee for dying before that career developed, before we could learn from his work, or invite him to come and inspire future journalism students.

It is not lasting anger, of course. It is sadness. And more than both, it is admiration for Lee’s work and his sacrifice in wanting to tell this story that often goes unnoticed, about homelessness and vulnerable people. Homeless people do die in the cold. If we only identify Lee’s death as tragic because he was a journalist who didn’t need to be there, then we will not have listened to his story.

Picture (C) North News and Pictures

Activism, Writing

Watching videos of Madonna

The library was in Ashburton Park, round the corner from where we grew up. I went there and rode my skateboard down the small slopes, travelling further and faster than I ever had before. It was in the small gardens outside the library where me and Maryann first split up; got back together; split up again. I remember the library as foreboding. But that wasn’t a kid word. That was a word I must have picked up later.

My sister was bunking off on days she had Mr Moore. Had her first period in his class. He stopped her going to the loo. So she went to the park, hung around the library. It had dirty red brick walls and its entrance was behind gates in the children’s playground, full of mums in sportsgear with loud voices and needling movements. My sister didn’t usually go in. When it rained she stood under the bandstand, if no kids were drinking or smoking there. She took my Nan’s Catherine Cookson’s back though, if they were late. But she didn’t borrow books. She liked watching videos of Madonna.

Sitting under the horse chestnut my sister had a view of the pond and the buses to Beckenham. She also had a view of the lane that led to our house so she could see if mum came along. Mum was the reader. She got me into the library and fantasy, the Belgariad and the ones with the Ws in the title (Wizards and the War Guild the one I remember). Libraries were posh and unknown then, like kisses. I came to like both. I believed in books even if I didn’t believe in myself. The library loaned it to me.

I learnt later my sister never had a library card. It was during a dinner with her boyfriend George who buttoned his shirt to the top and ‘didn’t drink anymore’ and told us my sister was afraid of the library. Not like her smart little brother, he said, and I felt ashamed for what I’d believed in. Her little brother who was reading Hornblower and throwing his smartness in her face. I don’t remember doing that. Maybe I did. I doubt I was any less cruel than the next kid. My sister was bullied since thirteen. It turned out, I discovered later, she was dyslexic, and never learnt to read.

(First published at Writers For Libraries, a campaign to protest Newcastle City Council’s proposals to close 10 out of the city’s 18 libraries, as well as other leisure services such as swimming pools, and to cut 100% of its support for the arts.)

Image (c) Shemer


Running Hard

Tonight in Edinburgh the Take Tea with Turing anthology was launched at Edinburgh’s Informatics Centre, celebrating the life of Alan Turing. This is my piece from the anthology, inspired by Turing’s excellence at running and other questions.

Jessop knocked on the door and poked his red face into the room.

‘Football’s cancelled.’

I propped myself up on the pillow and looked out of the window. When had the fog come down? I guess I’d been nose to book for—two already? I had until six. Football would have filled that gap with time to spare; and I needed to collect my shoes from the cobbler at Kings Gate. I put the book down. My feet were itchy. The run out to Ely was seventeen miles, and back again. I looked at my watch.


A grunt, then footsteps back down the corridor. Red face round the door.

‘What is it?’

‘Tell the guest from—’

‘Alan! Shhh…’ Jessop’s neck disappeared into his shoulders. ‘You’re not meant to—’

‘Calm down, man. Okay, tell Mr Simms I might be a little late for supper.’


There was that fellow again. I’d passed him a few times on the trail somewhere between Dimmock’s Cote and Waterbeach. That week the river at Swaffham Prior burst its banks and the trail was virtually submerged. He was splashing through, having a great time, the muddy duck. Up to his knees. He always smiled and greeted me. I strode on past, it was my fastest section and I wouldn’t slow down.

‘Gentleman Sir!’ he shouted, and gave a mock salute. ‘You’re flying again.’

I never seemed to have breath to reply. How he mustered up the free will to be so god damn friendly I’ll never know. Maybe there was no free will, and he was simply bound by universal law to greet me. Gentleman Sir!, really?

They gave me an awful look at dinner. Mr Simms was all Brylcream and standard-issue cufflinks. Who was he kidding? I managed to avoid them for the most of the night, sticking to the bar and Jessop and keeping one eye on the roving mortar of Battson, who was doing his best as host to keep Simms interested. But I suppose there was no getting away from it. He’d read my thesis, he’d come to meet me.

‘Turing,’ I heard Battson snap at my ear. I jumped and almost dropped my half-and-half. Mr Simms was standing there, fiddling with his tie. Grey and dreary cotton. And next to him, that man from the track, smiling. They were all looking at my feet.

‘Running shoes are not allowed in the dining hall, Turing,’ said Battson, shaking his head.


So it turns out we are not built of grass or cement or seeds, but bricks. We are made of little living bricks. When we grow, these bricks divide—okay, perhaps brick is perhaps the wrong material. But stay with it. How they grow, and where they should be placed, and when they should split again, no-one has worked out. What we know least about is the calculation. Take this example from today. Turned over my ankle, not severely, only a minor torque. The tendonopathy stimulates regenerative growth of tissue, and the body need know how many, where, how fast, to re-grow. What can calculate that? Only the mind—at the moment.

The force of impact of the heel striking the ground is measured in moments. They are called moments of force. I avoid all such moments, or at least try to. They bloody hurt. Most of the time I land on the mid- foot, not the heel. That way the landing is cushioned. The torque is still at the ankle, but rather than, oh, I’d guess 600 body-weights per second going up the leg into the lower spine, it will be around 100 body-weights per second. That’s how I dodge injury, usually: avoid the moments.

Bletchley is a cold, lonely place.

And I have not seen Gentleman Sir!, nor Mr Simms, since I arrived.


‘Off again?’ asked Malcolm. Malcolm opened up Hut 8 in the mornings and turned on the machine and made sure she was running by the time I arrived. He locked up at night. One time I’d found him here on the weekend. Said he’d had a tiff with his wife. I’m sure those things happened.

‘London, Malcolm, yes,’ I said.

He crossed his arms.

‘You’re running there?’

He stood blinking like one of the displays on the left rack. Not the right, for some reason, they had a different pattern. We hadn’t configured that yet. I tied my laces.

‘Yes, Malcolm. How else am I to think?’

‘You could get the train, sir.’

‘Think? On those narrow carriages?’

‘You could go for a jog around the lake, sir.’

I snorted. Oh, the lake! They kept me to laps of the lake. They didn’t let me out far enough to stretch my legs. National Security, really! I stood and stamped my feet.

‘It’s only when I go down to London that I get let off the leash.’

‘You’re a funny one, if you don’t mind me saying, sir.’

‘Keep her running for me Malcolm. And say hello to the wife.’

Twenty and a half miles in I was jumping over the slippery mud track of the canal alongside the Watford Road. It was drenched from the past week’s irascible showers. Hmmph, I thought, I suppose they could think of me that way. I resolved not to chain my mug to the radiator. But that was all! I slipped off the path into bramble. I pulled myself out. Nothing serious. I would shower before dinner. I thought of GS while I ran. Why, I’d not thought of him for months. Gentleman Sir! You’re flying, go on with you. Hardly anyone on the path that day—the downpour saw to that. I waddled through caramel-coloured mud. The ground slipped sideways under each foot landing, from the sagittal to the transverse plane. It was like running on flapping silk. Rather a contradiction. The ground moving as I moved across it, light enough to tear but strong enough to bear me. Leaping across puddles that covered the whole path; jumbling over buried stone; mounds of trodden clay and lichen-covered branches that blew off in the storms and lay in the path like lost crooked legs. Running, it made sense. It was past Hemel Hempstead as I entered Merlin Wood that I knew what I’d tell the brass. I didn’t attend the dinner. I stayed in my room at the Belvoir and wrote until I ran out of lead.

‘The cryptanalytic machine,’ I announced at the next morning’s meeting.

The generals looked less confused than the brigadier. Bless him.

‘The idea that you can use, in effect, a theorem in logic which sounds,’ I hesitated, but why not, god damn them, you’re flying, go on with you, ‘which sounds to the untrained ear absurd; namely that from a contradiction, you can deduce everything.

It took them by surprise. A long silence. Then one of the generals cleared his throat.

‘What the hell do you mean, man?’


It was 1946 when I met Johnny and Chris. I was past those workhorses in ten strides usually, a lunchtime run round the NP. That day Johnny and Chris kept up, slogging through the mud on the back trails. Or tried to keep up, that is; long enough to ask me who I was. I grunted louder. I was a noisy runner. I preferred running alone. Hadn’t I always run to get away from bothersome questions?

‘Come on chap, who—who are you—then?’

‘Nobody,’ I said.

The worst possible answer. They asked me to join Walton AC immediately.


Years before, I’d sat in Hut 8 wiggling my toes in front of me. I’d gotten a callous on a run back from London and had my socks off while working on the prototype. I had my feet up, and for fun pushed at the crib. The rotor settings weren’t connected to the plugboard, so there was no threat of breaking the damn thing. But wouldn’t you know it, that was the only day GS came to visit. Surprised me. Said his name was Frankie. That was all: Frankie.

‘Always create with your shoes off?’ he asked, smiling.

He wanted to know how the bombe worked. For each possible setting of the rotors, I told him, which had of the order of 1019 states, or 1022 for the four-rotor U-boat variant,the bombe performed a chain of logical deductions based on the crib, implemented electrically. The bombe detected when a contradiction had occurred, and ruled out that setting, moving on to the next.

He had his arms crossed. He was nodding too fast to know what on earth I was talking about. He looked at me. It was rather a sly look, I thought.

‘And it’s foot-operated?’ he asked, one eyebrow raised.


Johnny was leaning against the post by the Milton Country Park gate. We’d just done our Sunday twenty. I was out of sorts that day. That’s why Johnny looked so flushed: he’d been able to keep up. It was ’49 I think. After the Triple As. I’d lost motivation. I remember he and Chris were laughing as we packed up. Then from his bag Johnny pulled out that five pound note I’d given him before the boys went over on the ferry for the Nijmegen marathon.

‘Here,’ said Johnny, ‘I said I’d give it back.’

‘It was for the drinks after the race,’ I told him.

‘Guilt money, more like,’ said Chris.

I pulled on my tank top, and somehow ripped a hole in the side.

‘God damn! What do you mean by that, Chris?’ I snapped.

‘I meant you should have come with us,’ said Chris, stuffing his vest into his bag. ‘You should have raced.’ He stared at me as if I were some horrible creature. ‘The war’s over you know, Alan.’ He walked off.

I threw my bag over my shoulder.

‘I think you’re a little too stern with Chris,’ said Johnny.

‘I think you should have brought me back some clogs.’

‘To run in?’ Johnny laughed.

We started walking after Chris. Johnny thrust the fiver under my nose.

I waved him away. ‘I don’t need it. Keep it.’

Johnny frowned. Then he put the money back into his bag. We walked for a while in silence, back to the pub. Just the gravel under out feet.

‘Why do you punish yourself so much, Alan?’ asked Johnny, rather out of the blue.

Had I let the boys down? Fifth at the Triple As was not shabby. Only ten minutes off Olympic pace. I supposed it was a classic halting problem. Given a description of an arbitrary program, decide whether the program finishes running or continues to run forever. I thought I’d solved that back in 1936. It wasn’t possible. But that was all done with now. I never wanted to dedicate a life to running. I never wanted it to become an obsession. I put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.

‘Sorry about Chris. I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard. It’s the only way I can get some release.’


A machine is a device that manipulates symbols on a strip of tape. Through simple instructions—move forward, erase, write, read, my machine can enact any algorithm.

But not every algorithm has a machine to run it.

What if I’d never stopped running? What if I’d said ‘Gentlemen Sir! to you too?’

Well, it would have all been over a lot earlier than it was.

Think of running as a strip of tape. Move forward, left, jump, halt. Race. Erase. A computer, it turns out, is just a particular kind of machine that works by pretending to be another machine: a calculator, a ledger, a typewriter, a code-breaker.

But not a runner. A runner doesn’t pretend. He’s nothing other than what he is.

Non-Fiction, Running, Writing



Four and a half miles into my run and I’m jumping from side to side over the slippery mud track of the Cornwall coastal path, drenched from the past week’s irascible and unpredictable showers. I’ve nearly slipped off the path once, about two miles in, with a hundred-foot drop beckoning—more a tumble into bramble than sheer cliff, but worth avoiding just the same.

I take a quick glimpse to my right. There: the glittering sea, two tankers and a cruiser waiting for refuelling, half not there at the waterline in the haze of heat. The levelness of the ocean is like a nod from my granddad: you’re alright, get on, go on with you. There’s hardly anyone else on the path—the morning’s heavy downpour saw to that, although now it’s turned sunny—that pinpoint spring blaze that surprises as the sun fizzes out from the clouds. Yesterday’s 40mph gales have settled into more subdued bluster. What I’m jumping around and over and almost waddling through (a scene from one of those 80s overcoming-the-odds films: a double row of tires on the assault course) is the caramel-coloured aftermath underfoot of a wet weekend on the southerly-most point of Britain.

Every time I put my foot down, the ground under me slips sideways six seven inches. It’s as if I’m running on silk. Bobbly silk, granted. I’m leaping across puddles that cover the whole path; I’m jumbling left right left over half-buried stone and slate; over mounds of trodden clay and lichen-covered branches that blew off in the storms and lie in the middle of the path like lost crooked legs.

And I know I could fall at any moment, but I don’t slow down. I go faster. The major slip earlier, the one that nearly took me over the edge, flinched me in exactly the spot of the fatigue that I’ve been carrying around, from the middle of my spine through the left shoulder blade and neck as I shot out an arm to balance, and shifted something: set it loose and free. The climber Douglas Scott has felt it on higher and dangerous mountains: “We were frequently right on the edge and at the limits of our endurance. It is then that areas of our being that are normally hidden are revealed.” Being somewhere near an edge, and tending to the danger, but taking it on, going faster. It has dislodged what I’d held too close in my shoulders and arm, something hidden about myself: the loci of my fatigue.

I jump across a wide puddle. I feel the tug on my hip flexor not in the landing leg, but in the leg I jumped off. But the six weeks of nothing but stretching, nothing but core stability, has done its work. I feel it, but it goes. I jar my left ankle on a stiff angled rock, coming out of the path like the end of a buried book, spine out. I feel the flexor, but it’s not injured. It’s strengthening. I go on. I go faster. I taste salt on my top lip. I think: I’m flying. It’s here, on the return of this six mile run, the first serious run since injury, that I realise I’ve stopped counting how far I’ve run. I’m not noticing the distance or how far to go. I’m just running. Not for a race. Not to get fit. Not to get anything or anywhere.

And the fear that took me back to bed that same morning, only four hours earlier, the fatigue I’d carried in my shoulders since I’d burnt out two months earlier and couldn’t write one more single sentence, couldn’t even go out for a walk, the fear that crippled me almost as soon as I’d gotten up and then given up and thought: I can’t do this, I can’t do this, was gone. Just gone. It had tumbled over the edge of the coastal path as it had left my shoulders and run down my arm. In steadying myself to run faster I had flicked it out and away, into the great sea, down below.

I knew running would save me that morning. It always has.


The relationship between running and writing, and between both of those and emotional balance, was well laid out by the novelist Haruki Murakami a few years ago in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I’ve written about that elsewhere as have others. For Murakami, there are clear parallels between running and writing: he does both to reach a void. There are many similarities in what it takes to be both a runner and a writer. Murakami says he’s asked ‘what makes a writer’ in every interview he ever does. “The answer’s pretty obvious,” he says: “talent”. But he also knows what else is needed:

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value… I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing.

And from there, the third requirement is, “hands down, endurance”:

If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction… is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years.

Murakami then goes on to express this in a fundamentally embodied way:

You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs. Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.

According to Murakami, “fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, as they can be acquired and sharpened through training.”

Sitting down at the desk every day and concentrating on what you are writing is, for Murakami, the same as getting up every day and making the effort to go out running. It is the same training—the same requirement for a bit of talent, focus and endurance, to become a long-distance runner or a long-form writer. “Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything,” Murakami explains, “he made sure that he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated… This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs. This sort of daily training was indispensible to him.”

It was no coincidence that in March this year I stopped running at the same time that I stopped writing. Both were injuries that meant I had to ‘give up’. For running, it was my calves. For writing, my head. I sat down at the laptop one morning after what Irvine Welsh calls a ‘binge’ of writing (a highly productive binge) and stared at it for 21 minutes before closing the laptop again, and I haven’t really been able to write anything of significance since. And I hadn’t been able to run, either.

For my running, this was a blessing. I’d reached a point where I was too frustrated with always getting injured. So I went to a physiotherapist, Steve, who diagnosed a misaligned pelvis, weak core, and underdeveloped hip flexor and calf muscles. Rather than run, I was instructed to stretch properly every day, and to exercise my core. Like most semi-serious runners, I already knew this. Unlike most serious runners, I ignored it. But I was fed up of getting injured. So this time, I did what I was told. Stretching every morning, sometimes twice a day, and doing it properly (a minute each stretch, and the sciatic nerve twice a day in quick bursts). And focusing on the core, static strength exercises, five or six times a week. And the result: flying.

But I’ve not yet been able to do the same with the other injury. The head. The writing muscle. Somehow I’ve still not worked out how to strengthen it properly, and give it good rest.


That morning. And I thought things were getting better. But as Colin Espie, head of the Glasgow Sleep Centre, writes in his book Overcoming Insomnia, recovery from long-term chronic insomnia is an ‘uneven path’. This was my second sweep at the programme. The first, between May and August 2011, had worked. It took me from being a bad sleeper to an average one. That was a success. But it’s easy to fall back.

That morning. I got up at 602am, like every morning, got up, did my half hour of stretching, had breakfast, but didn’t feel right. Still felt too tired. So short of sleep. An average of 5hrs 42minutes last week. This week, improved: 6hrs 15m so far. But it’s not restorative. Not always restorative.

Sitting at the breakfast table with S, I was short tempered. Fatigued already. Already annoyed that I could not get out for the run at 7am, as I’d promised I would (promised who? My perfect self, that’s who). But what could I do? I couldn’t go back to bed: not allowed. So I put my shoes on, packed up my laptop and books, and readied myself to go out. S told me about a new vegetarian cafe. Turn left not right out of the house. Down the first steps, then right, or was it left? I don’t listen: I’m not going to go there. He’s telling me another way. I say it’s a small town, just tell me where it is off the high-street. He sees my short-temperedness, is annoyed. But he shrugs it off, is immediately calm and friendly as he says goodbye. I leave and turn right, like every morning.

And then in the cafe, I’ve no clarity on what I’m doing there. No purpose. It’s what I do every morning, get up, go out, write. For two months it worked well. And then—too many words. Too many projects piled up one on the other. Two hundred thousand words in two months. A hundred thousand words a month. Book chapter, article, essay, project, half the novel, flash pieces, morning pages. Not counting the emails, the teaching preparation, the getting-out-ofs, the corrections.

I try just writing the morning pages, the messy and unfettered and unedited journaling that Natalie Goldberg and Brenda Ueland and Joanna Field all recommend; the letters that John Steinbeck wrote on the left hand side of the book in which he wrote East of Eden on the right. Despite all of these precursors, all of these successes, all of these expert guides, I look at what I’m doing and think: pointless. Useless. I struggle on for eighty-one minutes. The frustration is deadening. I feel it as a physical fatigue clamped into my back. Then a short lift: the caffeine, some email and Facebook communication. Then a plunge: a contemporary announces the publisher deal for his second novel.

I close the laptop. I pack away my stuff, I can’t breathe into my belly, just a high, anxious grasping of air into the chest lungs. I lunge out of the cafe, left, left, left again, up Jacob’s ladder, and into the house. I kick off my shoes, they fly along the corridor, I tramp upstairs without even taking off my coat and climb into bed with the last forty pages of Never Let Me Go to read. Don’t do it, I say to the book and its imaginary world which is just as real if not more real than my own. Don’t do it to them.

I lay there, afraid of getting up. Afraid that I’ve wasted too much of my life. Afraid I’m not good enough to write. The fear is heavier than the duvet. It’s the thing I can’t lift up.

I finish the book and I close my eyes and I cry. Just one tear, two. This is the worst it’s been for a long time. I need to tell G that I’m suffering from significant depression. That it’s been the same every April and May for the last four years, perhaps earlier, some form of dissolution at the time of my father’s birthday. That I’m not a safe bet. I’ve written emails to her three, four times but not sent them, asking her to let this one go. Nothing depresses me more than that. So I think of Kathy and Tommy and Ruth in Never Let Me Go. “Poor creatures,” Madame calls them. “Poor creatures.” A life set out for them as cloned human donors. No parents, only guardians. Kept always in the dark until their bodies are stripped of every usable organ. They never even consider resisting. Without any choice of how to live and grow old.

And that’s when I get up.


Flying. It lasted for maybe half-a-mile, maybe not even that. But it was enough. At some level, I know it’s chemical: the endorphins rushing through my brain as the physical activity of running boosts my immune system, lifts the depressive mood and the physical exertion takes me out of the cycle of rumination, the closed circle of non-awareness that comes with anxiety and depression. But that’s ok. I’ll take it. I’ll take whatever I can get. What I’ll also take is the feeling that my legs and core are strong. I said to K a few weeks ago that I wanted to run for ever: for the rest of my life. And if I wanted to do that, I would need to take it all seriously. Grown-up. Stretching, core, diet.

This was the first run of my life when I knew I would run all my life. And if I am running my life—well, the metaphor says it all. It isn’t running me. I want to write all my life too. How to solve the deeper muscle trauma? What rest, what stretch? How to build up the endurance?

And there, just as I turn off the coastal path at Swanpool for the short stretch of road before it begins again, climbing up for the round-cliff stretch to Gyllgynvase, I see it, him, her: my first swallow of the summer! It swoops below a bush and then back up again. I follow it and watch it come to land on the edge of the outside bin area of the Indaba restaurant, where its partner, I suppose, is already resting. I stop, lift up onto my tiptoes, pause my Garmin, put a hand over my eyes to shade the sun, and stand for a moment watching. The first swallows, all the way from Africa. My six miles seems inconsequential. Good. They are. It’s not my distance travelled in miles that I need to measure.

I stand watching. I’m desperate to keep running, but I also want to watch the swallows fly just once more. They look around as if weighing up the situation. Their white bellies heaving under dark, deep blue heads. That word heaving. I’d written it down earlier in the morning in the cafe, a slip of the pen, I thought at the time, as I’d meant to write heaven: ‘the mind can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven’. I’d written heaving instead of heaven. I’ve been heaving around a lot of baggage—literally and metaphorically—taking my laptop with me everywhere, to write, even if I couldn’t. Even if my mind had given up. Making a hell of heaving.

Then one swallow dips down and up into the eaves of the restaurant. Good, I think, they’ve found their home. They’ve come back to it. And I think the other swallow will follow, but it dips down and then over my head and up into the sky and does a circle first, before coming down and swooping up into the eaves to disappear.

And as I’m coming back I know I’m doing a Louis, ending too fast, should keep the even pace of the run, but I don’t care. I don’t think of slowing down. I run on, Swanpool far behind me now, coming into the narrow concreted path that leads down to Gyllgynvase beach, and I’m shouting for a group of three lads to get out of the way, only too late seeing that the one in front is being cared for by the other two, that he has learning difficulties or some disability, and I just miss him as I twist past, still unable to slow down. And then I’m pounding past the final family, mother father two daughters, and onto the flat, and then onto the beach, and the sun is fully out, it’s midday, and the sea is a-glimmer, and I run over the shingle and blood-red seaweed drying like ringlets of radicchio pasta in a thick tidal line, and I’m kicking off my trainers and pulling off the socks that are worn away at the in-step and left me with blisters (blisters! Blissters… I’m running again, I was afraid I couldn’t) and I’m walking into the sea.

Freezing ankles, then up and over the calves and the knees, and the gentle waves that look barely ripples from a distance are suddenly much larger, more powerful, but still easily waded through, and my hands are up on my head as the cold starts to take my bones, but I know, guess, can already feel the swelling being taken out of my muscles by the brine and bream. I keep walking to ward off the worst of the cold, until four or five minutes in, and I start to get used to it, and can stand still and enjoy the air and the glimmer and the peace.

(A version of this was originally published on The Peripatetic Studio)

Activism, Green Feeling Archive, Momentary Affects, Writing


The local Cinema Politica group put on a showing of Rob Stewart’s film Sharkwater. It’s a big audience for an environmental documentary—perhaps fifty or so people on a cool Thursday night in the North East of England.

The film is Stewart’s love letter to sharks, and his attempt to redress both the myths we hold about sharks and to do something about their impending mass extinction at the hands of humans. Shark populations have fallen by anything between 90%-98% and there are no international regulations limiting or banning shark fishing. It is, according to many of the sources in the film, the greatest global biodiversity catastrophe waiting to happen. Sharks have been around for 400m years, and have shaped the entire ecosystem. Their removal will also shape it.

The film is in places graphic and hard to watch. It shows fins being cut from sharks, and those sharks, mostly dead, but sometimes still alive, being cast back into the water. It shows the billion pound shark industry that spans the globe for a tasteless soup that is a sign of privilege in Asian societies, and for herbal medicines that do not work. It shows the corruption of governments and the desperation of poor people who have little, except this unbounded resource at the edge of the shore as a way to lift themselves out of poverty. It shows the self-importance of stupid humans who are utterly unable to recognise the importance of sentient animal life.

I see C wipe away a tear at one point. I sit as monumentally as I can, thinking of Caravaggio’s sketch of St Matthew as he turns away from the man-made gospel he has just written, thinking: what have we done? Not to be overwhelmed. Why I try so hard is not clear to me.

The first comment, from one of the Cinema Politica organisers, is that although the subject matter is obviously serious and tragic, she felt its treatment was at sometimes ‘crude’ in its manipulations of the emotive nature of the story. From the other side of the room, a small voice confers: ‘agree’.

Two experts from the universities Marine Science Department are invited up to help begin a debate. Both manage the debate excellently. Fair, polite, knowledgeable, and pragmatic, they also negotiate through to the core of what’s being discussed: the emotive nature of what we’ve just witnessed. Without taking sides, they re-emphasise the facts, contribute additional information, bear witness to the contribution that people can make if, as Paul Watson, of Sea Shepherd, in the film suggests, we choose to devote our lives to solving these problems.

I dig myself out of the frustration I’m feeling at those two first comments to try and model the experts: how they are handling this, even though I want to ask those first two contributors why they think the sanctity of their emotional freedom is the important thing to be discussed here. Why first comment on the mechanisms of film-making? Didn’t they just see what I saw? Why do they have to detach themselves from the content because they are uncomfortable with the form? Why can’t they just feel, and act?

A reasonable debate gets going. I think it is the same girl who said ‘agree’ who later asks the experts if they think Sea Shepherd’s tactics might turn people against conservation? Expert N is polite and considered in his response. It’s a tough question. But is it? In a world of seven billion people, there is one ship, with perhaps 50-200 people within his organisation, patrolling two thirds of the world’s surface, against the illegal activities taking place, where obvious government and organisational complicity and corruption obstruct them at every turn (Both experts agreed the corruption in the film was credible; from my own time as ELDIS/ID21.org editor on global issues, including illegal fishing, I know this is the case).

What is wrong with this person that she cannot take a step back and do the maths? One ship, perhaps 200 people in the Sea Shepherd organisation. Is it really even worth asking that question? Did she not listen when Paul said his organisation was not a campaigning organisation? Does she know the history of direct action and indirect action? Did she not believe the figures of shark loss, which Expert S has just confirmed, and actually said are often worse?

The last comment of the night: a woman in the row in front, who carefully, softly, expresses what we were, I think, both feeling; a need to respond to those first commenters who felt the film ‘crude’ and ‘too emotive’ – that she didn’t mind that it was emotive; that due to the seriousness of the situation, it needed to be blunt, a slap in the face. I’m glad it was her who said it and not me. I would have been much more antagonistic. All I could think about were the words of Thich Nhat Hahn I’d read earlier in the Ecologist magazine, that perhaps humans would be extinct in 100 years, and that we should begin with those first couple of people who made comments tonight.

I go home. I sign up to the United Conservationists’ email list. I order Brendan Brazier’s book Thrive, on how to combine a vegan and sports lifestyle. I talk to C later about uncertainties and about designations. We don’t talk about the film. The next morning I think about why I fought so hard against being moved. I think about if there is any real difference between my end of the spectrum (the self-dissolving end) and the other end (the self-centred end) where I immediately, ‘crudely’, judged those two girls to sit. It’s differences along that axis that are were the central division between myself and C, but if it just comes round and meets at the two ends anyway…?

This isn’t a long-thought out argument. I’m sure there are holes in it. I’m just fed up with humanity. It’s not that our emotions are manipulated by such films as Sharkwater that are the problem. It is that they usually have to be. Modernity has privileged the self. Self-awareness, self-actualisation, the great Romantic project, has found its self-centred apogee in the industrialised deracination of the planet via the mechanisms of capital production, particularly inequality and poverty. In other words, we’re selfish, and we fuck things up—for other humans as well as animals and plants. And that’s the corrupt governments, the greedy businessmen, and the self-indulgent graduate student whose emotions have been affronted. And I shamefully include myself in that categorisation.

What is ‘crude’ is that our emotions have become more important realities to us than the lives of hundreds of millions of intelligent and beautiful sharks. Instead, in Rob Stewart, and Paul Watson, and those who act, we have models to follow where emotions are in the service of the world, not above it.

Walking, Writing

Hamish Fulton, Slowalk

This review was commissioned by the artist Mike Collier and the AV Festival for their end of festival catalogue and can be downloaded as a PDF.

31st March, 2012, Newcastle Quayside, part of the AV Festival ‘As Slow as Possible’
When people gather together in a flat open space and they come there slowly on foot from two or three directions they carry with them in their arrival a congregational power. A field of walking. A force of walking. Like an ancient indaba in the desert to settle matters—you will come far if it is important. Imagine waiting at the well and seeing far away first emerge mesmeric dots, and then grains of black rice, and then curved talons, and then walking shapes: ah, people! The mystery of figures at a distance who you’re not quite sure you want to come closer, as in the later video works of Bill Viola and his characters half-hidden in the desiccated heat, all a-glimmer. The space we have come to in our own time and at our own pace is bounded on one side by faded industry and on the other a flowing river. But we are funnelled-in like sand, not water. There is a settled end to our procession, a ‘here we are’ or ‘this is it’ to our slowing and stopping and mingling that says, fine, we are arrived and ready, turn the hourglass over.

We have come together to take part in the artist Hamish Fulton’s ‘Slowalk’, the closing event of this year’s Newcastle-Gateshead AV Festival, in the car park of the old Spillers’ Wharf on Newcastle’s Quayside. It’s a typical Spring day, sun and cloud and the threat of showers. When the sun leans out from behind its shade it surprises me how hot it is already. But everyone, the 150 participants, the organisers, the watchers, the video- and photographers, are wrapped up against both blaze and bluster.

Starting positions in this, the latest of Fulton’s walking pieces that he has been making, either on his own or with willing participants, since the late 1960s, were at either the end or intersection of the white lines of the car parking grid. We are all instructed to walk to the next intersection, and no further, in the following two hours. Likes beads on an abacus.

The theme of the 2012 AV Festival has been ‘As Slow as Possible’. An artist of Fulton’s experience can afford to take it literally. From the end of one parking space to the centre line where it connects with the opposite car space is around ten feet. For those walking along the middle line, it’s around seven. I will walk a 43 percent greater distance than those others. Over the course of two hours, those three extra feet are a delicate gift.

Half-an-hour in and I take a first look back over my shoulder at the line I’d been set to follow. I’d walked three, maybe four feet. “How far I’ve come!” I thought to myself (strictly no talking), genuinely surprised. It felt as if I hadn’t moved. Yet because of the extension of time, because of the dwindling into the distance of all other tasks, I was awed. We should take with us in all our making such markers by which we can judge more simply our actions, our achievements. It would be the slowest walk that I, and perhaps every other person taking part, will ever have to make.

All, that is, except the artist himself. Fulton has been walking since the late 1960s. In 1973, having walked over 1,000 miles in 47 days from Duncansby Head (near John O’Groats) to Land’s End, Fulton made his decision to “only make art resulting from the experience of individual walks.” Some of his walks are over short distances, such as ‘Seven Paces’ in 2003, set into the Rhine Towpath. Some are more challenging: his 44-miles a day for seven days across Kent; his 10-kilometre backward blindfold walk.

He has said: “If I do not walk, I cannot make a work of art.”  He has also said of his walking-making: “Facts for the walker, fictions for the viewer.” So what facts? The obvious effect was the permission to take one’s time. But how to take it? How to bend and shape it? Like those I spoke to afterwards, many of us expected a meditative conga similar to that which Fulton curated in Kent and exhibited in Margate at the Turner Contemporary earlier in the year. Expectations had to be quickly adjusted. It would be the only speedy act in the two hours.

I tried to meditate, but the walk was neither still enough nor at the pace of one’s heart for that. Others, as I looked around, were more successful. One man held still like a pressed flower. One woman with striking grey-white hair took a more cavalier approach—leaning slowly in one direction, before spinning on the spot with arms out to break the spell. Others experimented with ways of walking. One kicked a tiny stone along in front of her, and when it was over, picked it up and put it in her pocket like a lucky charm. One counted to three hundred before each step. Another, we gossiped after, had not moved at all in the whole two hours! And yet, when it was over, he was at his line’s end-point, a flat precipice at which no-one dared step over. How had he got there?

Half-way through I was ahead of the other walkers along the parallel set of lines. I slowed down further. I closed my eyes and rested on one leg then the other before picking the foot up, feeling every inch lifted, and then down a few millimetres in front. Stretching my back out between each step. When I looked around again, most of my companions had overtaken me.

It was near the end I noticed the artist himself only two or three positions away, smiling generously. In the lines around his eyes I knew he had hardly begun; hours, days, months left in his capacities. I saw on his face that he had set us a challenge, we participants, in this mass art event. To curate art, a challenging act, was for Fulton to trust us to walk our walk, so to speak. To trust us in following strict instructions, but that was only the ticket to ride. By the time it was over, if we had entered into the spirit, we would have discovered some idea about ourselves, whatever it was.

In an interview earlier this year, Fulton said: “I like to introduce the notion of ideas into walking, expanding the idea of walking, instead of walking simply as a recreational pursuit.” For much of his recent walking, that idea has been ‘justice’ (for example, for Tibet). On Newcastle’s Quayside, the idea was, perhaps, something more apolitical, prosaic, but fundamental: that we do not simply pass through the artwork; the constitution of the self is not suspended while engaged with making art: the self is precipitated by the quality of the relation to the experience of making. As Fulton says, ‘no walk, no work.’ Or perhaps it was just: take your time.

And then it was over. A gong rang to mark the end of the two hours: the walker opposite me jumped. For those facing the river, where the gong was held and hit, it did not come as a surprise. Those facing the other way had instead marked the passage of time by the Quayside hopper as it ran along the road every 15 minutes, interrupted by the local boys who BMX-ed by and weaved away on the half-pipes of fear (‘they’re freaking me out’) and aggression (‘you’re all weirdos!’).

Another participant, the poet Linda France, was similarly surprised. ‘It went much quicker than I was expecting,’ she said, as she, I and the other participant who had jumped, converged  and shook hands and congratulated each other for the collective achievement. It took us some time to move off.  We had not become habituated. We were savouring the act. Stood, as the geographer John Wylie says, in “a field perhaps of awe, irritation or serenity, which exceeds, enters into, and ranges over the sensations and emotions.”

Like an ancient indaba in the desert to settle matters—you will come far if it is important. And then when it is over, you will leave. If the matters have been settled wisely, or if in fact you found no difference between you at all (none to speak of) then you will walk away with confidence, others at your back. You will not usually turn around. And you will realise, perhaps with a smile and a glance at your companions, that as much as the congregation was important, and that you drank fully from the well, and that to rest on the soft zafu cushions was a pleasure, you will know, deep within you, that the further you walk to reach such a place, the less you have to say.