Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Ten Years : Two : Run For My Life

One day, at around the age of fifteen, I found myself spontaneously running a couple of miles to get to a friends’ house. It just seemed too time-consuming to walk, and I found that once I’d begun, I enjoyed the heightened heart rate and what must have been endorphins and adrenaline. I started going out for a run, always by myself, when I needed to get out of the house, and found it a reliable release and de-stresser in the year before my O-levels. I’d even run before school some mornings. I mused that I ought to run the Mersey Marathon, inspired by the fictional sexagenarian Paul Collins on Brookside.
Then, alas, came cans of lager, packets of twenty Embassy Regal, and the pursuit of the seldom-captured Liverpool female sixth-former. Running dropped out of my life to be replaced by hangovers.
Significantly, when I hit financial rock-bottom a few years later as an undergraduate, posted for some work experience to Bracknell, I stopped regularly drinking, gave up smoking for a year, and, hey presto, the urge to run returned. Alas, my future employer sponsored me for my final year and, financially recovered, addiction won again.
Addiction continued to hold its champion title for about another two decades until 2004, and a lucky alignment of events, free gym membership and a new employer who asked for volunteers from the office to participate in a 10k competitive run. I was feeling bold, and found myself, for the first time ever, safety-pinning a number to my shirt and running until someone gave me a medal. A brand new experience coming in my late thirties, it lit up seldom switched-on parts of my brain.
One interpretation of the Winter of 2004/5 is that I finally shook off the most destructive addiction I’ve ever had – alcohol. An equally valid one is that I made my final and permanent relapse into compulsive and addictive running.
I think it’s a fairly common dual diagnosis. I recently read Running Ransom Road by Caleb Daniloff in which he confesses to the same kind of switch, albeit in a far more glamorous and globetrotting way than me. (Coincidentally, we both spent the early eighties drunkenly singing the songs of prog-rock supergroup Asia. As it happens, so did Asia’s frontman, John Wetton, and I’m pleased to report that he’s dried out as well now.)
That first 10k was my gateway drug, that first free spliff at a party. Soon I was mainlining half marathons a couple of times a year and in 2008 actually ran a marathon, in four hours and nine minutes.
My nature is such that I couldn’t let those nine minutes rest, and on the third attempt, got it under four hours. I’ve now run eight marathons, and this year in Manchester, finally beat three-and-a-quarter hours, by some margin, so that for Liverpool next June I’m aiming for three-and-a-half. The route will go past the end of my Mum’s road, so I’ll be running along some of the streets I covered as a fifteen-year-old before this whole horrible business with organic chemistry hijacked my brain for decades.
If you have what simplistic terminology calls an addictive personality, then you can’t simply stop having addictions. This is why attempts to cure addiction by merely sitting around not drinking, or not smoking, or not thinking of a white bear are torture, not to say failure-prone.
I accept that I’m always going to have addictions. 
The good news from the last ten years is that I have some choice as to what they’re going to be. 
I choose that one of my addictions is running. That choice means I have an addiction I can be proud of. And I am today proud to say that at the end of my final run of 2014, just a couple of miles around Beadnell in Northumbria this morning, I had covered a thousand and two miles this year.
In 2016 I will turn fifty. To mark this I am going to run a race with at least one mile for each year of my life, the Glasgow to Edinburgh double marathon.
The me that used to drink could not conceivably achieve this.
The me that can achieve this can not conceivably drink.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ten Years : One : Back to the Piano

Much of my progress, if I can call it that, in the last decade has involved making the most of what’s already there. Ten years ago, I had long-since decided never to attempt to play a musical instrument again and already sold my collection of dust-covered synthesisers.
This changed five years ago, following a well-staged reunion of NYLON, the schooldays synth, drums and vocals ensemble that enriched my teens. The four of us (and it’s three now following the tragic early death of David Brophy earlier this year) didn’t do anything so radical as play together again that day. However, I was inspired to have a fiddle with Garageband, the miraculous digital audio workstation that comes bundled with each and every Apple Mac these days.
Perhaps it was because I’d been sober for half a decade by then, but I was gripped with possibilities, and swiftly procured a proper external music keyboard. What can be achieved with virtual synthesisers these days is astonishing, especially compared to the hacking and brute force we needed in the early eighties. If I had my teenage free time and the power of the new century’s tools I would be a contender, I like to kid myself.
I found myself plonking out Bach’s Minuet in G. This was a piece I had failed to master when undertaking six months of piano lessons around the age of ten. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could actually nail it and go home and play it for my mum? I could. I did. It was.
I seemed to have been possessed with the idea of going back to my childhood and righting my wrongs. I had never even progressed as far as Grade One in those days. Could I now, in my forties, actually pass a music exam? I studied the syllabus, bought the books, and entered myself for the examination.
The week before, I slipped into one of the schools at which spouse teaches, and made sure that what I’d learned would work on an actual piano. It did then, and it did a few days later in the exam.
I passed. With distinction. On to Grade Two, then. I found myself assembling electronic soundscapes less and less, and instead getting to grips with playing the piano. This had taken me over.
When we moved from our closely-neighboured colony maisonette into a detatched bungalow, I seized the opportunity to buy a well-loved second-hand upright piano. Spouse is very tolerant of me practicing scales and pieces well into the night.
I’ve now sat and passed the first five grades offered by the Associated Board, and also followed the Theory of Music syllabus. I’ve continued to do this without the services of a teacher, a decision which has earned me some admiration but no small amount caution from professional musicians as well. One only has to listen to The Shaggs to know what autodidactic musicality can sound like.
Ascending the grades has become harder and harder. It takes me months to learn a Grade Six piece, and I am finding them so complex that I cannot memorize them and have to read as I play. Reading as I play (sight-reading) is another skill that is not coming easily, and the Grade Five exam saw me offering a piss-poor effort that I only performed in order to get more than zero marks in that section. Dealing with my anxiety in the days before and after each exam is draining.
I aim to sit Grade Six in late 2016. I may engage a teacher before then if absolutely necessary, but only as a troubleshooter. I have been inspired a great deal by Alan Rusbridger’s “Play It Again”, his account of reaching his goal of playing a beast of a Chopin piece by a certain date, while holding down one of the busiest jobs in journalism.
The sobriety, mindfulness and focus of the last decade has helped me dig up this part of myself – the urge to play a musical instrument – and not only derive satisfaction from it in the present, but also to feel less bad about jacking it in in my youth. I also feel good about having hooked up with my old bandmates.
Everything that has ever happened to you will always have happened. So it seems right to acknowledge it.
It’s a great feeling to find something in your mental attic, dust it off, and realize it was always part of you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Daily Sights: Burnthrough

The back of an illuminated advertising frame at a bus shelter. On a bleak day, it seems to offer a glimpse into a hidden world of bright light.