A RAMBLE for ROGER
Three Runners, a Race,
and an Owl.
Written for Professor Roger Robinson,
Athlete, Scholar and Friend,
(Footnotes and references can be found at the end of the essay.)
I am not a runner by physique or by choice. My pleasure is to stand on the side lines: to watch and applaud, all the while somewhat mystified.
I have seen both the ecstasy of victory and the tears of defeat. A woman I recall, upon winning a marathon simply keeled over and the expression on her face as she sank to the ground can only be compared to that of a woman at the moment of giving birth. And, as regards tears, who could not be moved by the heroism of Chris Brasher in the 3,000 metre steeplechase, way back in 1956, running on empty, but still somehow running, and then winning only to be told that he had been disqualified. What confusion! What disbelief! What grief! 
Shortly before his death Chris Brasher tried to sum up his feelings about running. “Never known anything like it. All you can hear is screaming inside your head. Beethoven’s Ninth, the Ode to Joy. . . you’re drowning in sound. There’s something inside you that wills you to do it. Irresistible, that’s how it was.”
Hearing this, any non-runner can be excused for feeling a bit like the little boy who was left outside the mountain when the pied piper of Hamlin departed with all the other children.
My school was keen on running. On Wednesday afternoons, the time in the week set aside for sports, we were occasionally sent for long walks especially if the fields were soggy from too much rain. On these days, if a malevolent prefect were in charge, he might decide to make the occasion an inter-house race, whereupon we all dragged on our white sports shirts and baggy white shorts and scuffed gym shoes and headed down to the lower paddock where we lined up – the skinny, the fat, the short and the tall, the dreamy, the cool and the wicked – each wearing a ribbon the colour of his house, there to await the word “go”. And go we did, splashing through the mud. Our course took us round the side of the golf course, up Oliver’s Mount (so called because, as legend wrongly maintained, it was from here that Oliver Cromwell fired cannon balls at Scarborough Castle) through the woods, past the war memorial, round the motor-bike race track and then back down the hill to the college. The distance was about 5 miles but it seemed longer as the going was steep and the pathways slippery.
Of course the time taken was much shorter if one was one of the ‘bad’ boys. They would dive into the bushes after the first bend, thence to make their way via a ditch to the small enclosure behind the cricket pavilion where they could enjoy a quiet and revivifying cigarette or (so the rumour went) a nip of whisky from a bottle well hid under a milk crate. Their subtlety was, when they heard the slap-slap of the runners’ return, to rub their clean tunics with mud before retracing their steps along the ditch and merging with the red-faced lads who came panting home. The deception reached its acme at the finish line where the bad boys would collapse over the line gasping for water. I was not one of these, I’m sad to say, for some of them went on to achieve prominence in Economics and Local Government, though one, I understand, ended up in prison for shooting the village bull!
However, it was one such race which was almost my undoing…. But more of that later, for from this grandstand position of 2009, I can now see that the bit of running I did, undistinguished though it may have been, taught me a lot
Among my friends at school were two lads who were runners but who lacked that spirit of competition which I think must be the sine qua non for those who wish to win consistently. In other words, both could (and did) win races when they took the trouble, though they often had more important things on their minds. Their attitude must have seemed both frivolous and scornful (not to mention frustrating) to those who took the races seriously.
Take my fiend Mike for example. He ran in the senior class as he was a year older than me; taller too, thin as a rake, darkly handsome and with a brooding manner (which we greatly admired) and a rare gift for mathematics. On one sports day – an important occasion in the school calendar for it was one of the occasions when parents visited the school, and when the teachers were on their best behaviour – I noticed that Mike had been picked for the cross-country run. This course, unlike the Oliver’s Mount mud-slide, was truly gruelling. Starting from the school, it led down to a winding path which wandered up and down and round the cliffs above the grey North Sea eventually arriving at Cayton Bay. Vikings had landed hereabouts, or so the story went. If one followed this path to its end, one reached the dangerous rocks of Filey Brigg where many ships had been lost. However, before reaching that notorious land mark, the path divided and the right fork took one up into the foothills of the Wolds and thence through farmland to a long slope leading back down to the playing fields of the college and the winning-line outside the headmaster’s study.
For some reason the race was delayed and I noticed that Mike was becoming anxious. He stood, looking at this watch as though calculating, while the other runners jogged about nervously and pumped their arms and jostled to be close to the starting line. Finally the pistol was fired and they were off racing to be first to get to the cliff path. As the runners vanished, not to be seen again for at least two hours, the attention of the spectators shifted to the shot-put and the javelin and the fencing which had now become my preferred sport.
We had just finished the fencing final (I won) when a shout went up. The first runner of the cross country race had been sighted coming over the hill and starting on the long lane that led down to the school. I could see by his long loping gate that it was Mike. Not another runner was in sight. Applause began as he entered the school grounds and the parents and the younger brothers and elder sisters waved flags. The physics master, who had been promoted to time-keeper for the day, let it be known that a new school record might be set and this news created a buzz among the spectators. Without slowing, Mike ran up the slope, breasted the tape… and, before the astonished gaze of the Headmaster and the local MP who was there to dish out the prizes, kept on running. He pushed past the clapping hands of the well-wishers and vanished round the corner of the gymnasium in the direction of the changing rooms. This caused quite a flutter, as you can imagine. What was wrong? Was he ill? I was dispatched to see what had happened.
When I reached the changing rooms, Mike emerged, still running. He had changed his shirt and trousers – he may even have had a shower, though I doubt it, for in those days we were not so particular – and was dragging on his jacket.
“Where are you going?” I asked, “They’re all waiting for you back there You broke the soddin record.”
“Tell ’em I’m busy,” he panted. “ Tell ‘em I’m sick. I’m late already. I’m meeting a girl… from the convent… see ya.” And he was gone.
My report to the headmaster was brief. “He is a bit indisposed, Sir,” I said, making the truth sound like a euphemism. “But OK.”
“Yes. Quite,” said the headmaster, “after a hard race like that…” and Mike received his prize later – both of them, I think.
So, if Mike taught me that winning could be merely the means of achieving a greater end, another friend taught me that winning was largely irrelevant . His name was Nobby, from which I deduce his real name may have been Robert but we always called him Nobby, and he had two qualities that were outstanding. First he was always smiling. Nothing seemed to bother him. When he came bottom in class he just smiled as if to say “Well that’s that then.” When he broke his leg, he said “Well, it’ll mend.” And it did,
Now this permanent bonhomie could have been irritating had it not been matched by Nobby’s second great quality – namely that he was phenomenally strong physically. He wore his strength like an aura, and it was manifest even in small gestures like picking up a pencil, but frighteningly evident if he chose to exert himself as when he defeated a school bully by simply picking him up and throwing him bodily across the changing rooms and into the closet where the caretaker kept his brooms and buckets. Although I never saw him do it, I am sure he could have unbent a horseshoe with his bare hands.
He was also a runner. He ran everywhere. It was his mode of transport. The style of his running was distinctive too. He swung his arms like pistons, his hands were always clenched into fists, and the shoulders were held under tension almost like one of those action-man dolls that became popular in the 1980s. I think he broke every school record for running in the short time that he was with us.
I remember the race he won shortly before he left school. He must have been sixteen at the time. Now if Mike won because he had a secret motive which spurred him on, Nobby won for the totally uncomplicated reason that he was faster than anyone else. I remember him coming down the last slope. Waving to the crowd, grinning from ear to ear, pumping along like a robot. He accelerated up the final slope and broke the tape and simply stopped. He had broken the school record by over ten minutes and… believe this for it is not a lie, he was not even puffing. He blew out lustily and that was that. He shook hands all round. He accepted congratulations with a broad grin but no great sense of pride. It was as though he was happy that he had made others happy.
After the back-slapping there was a pause with no one knowing quite what to say as it would obviously be a long time before the next runner came into sight.
“So er… you will be leaving us at the end of term, having broken all our records, what?” That was the Headmaster.
“And what will you be doing? Joining an athletics club? Running a marathon?”
Nobby looked a bit blank. “I’ll be working on my dad’s farm. He needs a hand now he’s knocking on a bit. It’s a bit hilly round Hutton Buscle way.”
Later when he received the cup, his only comment was, “My mam’ll like that. Thank you.”
If Mike and Nobby, each in their different way, showed me the casual – comical even – face of running, the third runner whom I have come to know well gave me a wholly different vision. It is my cousin James who, having now of necessity, hung up his running shoes, is developing his life as a painter, a writer and on recent evidence, a poet.
James was the kind of runner that I think Roger would like. In his youth, James would stare at a hill and feel an overwhelming desire to run up it and down it as fast as he could, and then do it all again, but faster. He was an orienteer and cartographer which is to say that he loved running through the open country and woodlands, and delighted in creating maps guaranteed to deliver the greatest variety with the greatest challenge. He ran for Great Britain five times, and only slowed down when the encroaching shadow of MS made its self felt.
One of my favourite memories is of the time James visited us at Choussy in France and decided to go for a run. James is not without his own streak of eccentricity and as chance would have it, he had brought with him a new, blue lycra running suit. To appreciate the full significance of this, you must also know that James, apart from being over six feet tall, bears a passing resemblance, facially at least, to that hero of heroes, Superman.
So now you can appreciate the ripple of alarm which swept through our village as this blue figure streaked down the central street of the tiny village, veered into the forest, thence to appear sprinting along various lanes of our neighbourhood, frightening the chickens, setting the dogs a-barking and providing all manner of gossip for the superstitious locals. The madness of the English was confirmed and the time that Superman visited the village is remembered to this day.
I will let James speak for himself.
Before settling down to write this Ramble, I contacted James and asked him to write for me a first hand account of some of his feelings about running. The following extracts are from his letters to me.
“It was sprinting made me think really deeply about what running means to me. The words are personal, but the artist in me is always looking for the right expression….
“Anyway, when I’m sprinting absolutely flat out and I’m focusing intensely on my balance and breathing, strange things happen to my mind. Seriously weird and wonderful things. When I’ve hit 5th gear and I’m eye-balls out, without warning my running shoe grip becomes less sure of itself and suddenly, the ground begins slipping from under me and I’m lifted skyward, totally weightless ….
“When I’m in full flight my thoughts are able to squeeze down narrow, unexplored passages in my mind. They wriggle into unknown recesses and emerge in massive secret caverns which I never even realized were there. I really perfected this mind pot-holing during a lonely winter of long distance training ….
“By March I was so bursting with fitness my breathing seemed totally effortless. I set off like a greyhound exploding from the traps and soon we’re all cruising fast in 4th gear. At this speed my body moves so smoothly like a lizard on hot rocks hardly dancing up and down at all. Then coach shouts and I turn on an extra spurt up to 5th. We pummel the air like prize-fighters pumping our knees up and down; sprinting eyeballs out all the way round the pitch. I’m right at the very top of my speed now and my focal point seems raised up and intensified way beyond what non-runners can understand. I’m soaring above the world and dancing round satellites like an Olympic skater, seeing everything shimmering in brightly intense colours. I feel as though I’m God, divinely seeing everything from up here. I can even see myself working hard yet feeling cool and looking effortless. At this speed I’m sure my fellow runners speak the same, wordless runner’s language as me. I know they do….
“Wordless runner’s language,” This is as I suspected. There is a mental shift takes place when the body is pushed to its limit and then excels.
But back to James.
“Here we’re on a leaf strewn track that snakes through a forest where giant beech trees guard the terrain like watchmen who seem to encourage my speed. “Go on. Go on. Go on”, they whisper as I pass. I feel as though I’m being pulled from the outside along the trail which widens into a large clearing and suddenly I’m sprinting in 5th gear again. My blood gushing with oxygen, pumping to my muscles like a train whose driver shovels an extra large batch of coal into the grateful (sic) open jaws of its roaring engine. My human and falcon blood craving oxygen like an addict. I concentrate on 5th gear again, the oxygen kicks in, my attention focuses on my expanding mind and whoosh! Suddenly it’s chocks away again!
All of which perhaps explains the somewhat feral look I have seen on the face of runners as they enter the last third of a race and have the whiff of victory in their nostrils. And can one not here see Pheidippides, (at least in the Browning version) as he arrived in Athens, having run the race of his life, to bring the good news of the victory at Marathon?
What James is describing is more than running. It is a different dimension of being, and a fitting introduction to my own experiences.
If in the experience of James we have the ecstasy, my experience was more the agony
It is well to remember that I am writing this account some 50 years after the events took place. Many details are hazy and I freely acknowledge my belief that memory is closer to imagination than video. Never the less, some important truths remain clear: for why else would I remember an otherwise insignificant race in a small sea-side town in North Yorkshire except that something strange happened that day, something which in the tangled logic of my life, has remained constant.
But I do not want to speak in riddles.
It was a cold day. I remember that. And there were no more than twelve or fifteen runners involved. But why and how I came to be running in this particular race I do not know. I do know that I was looking forward to it in the same way as one looks forward to an exam or a visit to the dentist. And my worst fears were fulfilled. No sooner had we heard the word “Go” and begun the grinding run up the side of Oliver’s Mount than I tripped and fell. The ground was slippery with sudden pools of mud that could engulf your ankle. Beneath the sodden leaves lurked the waiting greasy knuckles of exposed tree roots and it was one of these that had downed me.
Other runners splashed past me. If I had had my wits about me, I would have quit then and limped back complaining of torn tendons, possible fractures and God knows what else. But I didn’t. For some reason I got up and started off again, and I can recall a grim satisfaction that I now wore the evidence of my efforts for all to see. You can call it costume and make-up, if you like.
I was also angry, and that Mars energy somehow seemed to fuel my muscles. I was angry at myself for having become involved in this stupid race. Angry at the rain which had turned the paths to mire. Angry at the other runners who had already passed and whose footprints were quickly filling with black ooze. Angry, too, at the trees for being in the way and making life difficult. But somehow I kept going, until I got stitch and my misery seemed complete.
I wish I could offer a smooth transition out of this gloom, but I can’t. I remember feeling quite desolate and alone as I stumbled and slipped, clutching my side… but then I heard, or seemed to hear, another runner catching me up and who would no doubt be impatient to pass me. But no one came through even though I moved to the side. And when I looked over my shoulder, there was no one there. But I could hear him. If I stopped, he stopped. If I ran, he ran. He was just behind me and to my left. I could hear his breathing! I was not alarmed by this, but somehow accepted it as part of what was already a strange day.
Imagination? Perhaps, but strange things do start to happen when you push yourself beyond your comfort and are alone. In my reading over the last fifty years, I have come upon many accounts of people who, finding themselves in extremis, have believed themselves to have a companion. To some Shamans, this ghostly companion can be called Death, for he is always there at your elbow, and the Shamans make a point of getting to know him. I rather like that idea for it robs Death of his enmity: Death is seen as a helper, ready to serve when the moment arrives.
In my case, I became sure, that the person running beside me was myself. This then, was one of the first occasions that I felt the division between I and ME. There have been many occasions since. I am also very certain that had there been another (schoolboy) runner with me, I would not have heard my invisible companion. There is nothing of madness in this. It is just that being alone and in a demanding situation one can more easily arrive at the junction where reality divides.. The invisible companion does not exist in both of these and the presence of another runner would have simply confirmed everyday reality. There is something of quantum simplicity about this.
So what did this invisible companion do? Nothing. He just padded along beside me and eventually we reached the top, where he faded away. I was not conscious of his going, just as you are not conscious – unless you train yourself – of the way that one thought can lead to another which may be quite different. I do recall that as we reached the top, the ground became firmer, the gradient was easier and I actually passed several lads who stood, heads bowed, breathing deeply, their breath white in the cold air.
I ran on, and I can recall being amazed that I could not really feel my body anymore. It was running on its own – rather as James describes it – and I was liberated from it and free to think… though I was not master of the thoughts.
The anger had gone; but it was replaced with a new and quite strange awareness. Thoughts came welling up; strange thoughts, ‘unmanageable thoughts’ as I plugged along. I had been reading Wordsworth – still a favourite poet – and The Prelude had affected me quite deeply. Not that I felt it was a ‘great work’ for that can be the death of poetry, but I could not help but compare his childhood with my own. He had the Lake District to roam in, I had the North Yorkshire Moors and the wild North Sea, as well as a mother who let me ramble. I too had walked through darkness with only the stars for company and felt every sense come alert at the crack of a twig on the path.. I had heard the sad organ music made by the wind as it funnels up the hills, and I had fallen asleep in a wood where pine cones (but not acorns) fell. I had never stolen a boat and rowed out onto a lake in the darkness, but I knew Wordsworth’s fear, and I well understood his guilty care to row back quietly. Indeed, the world of which I was aware then and which fascinated me – and still does – was more like Pan’s Labyrinth than The Wind in the Willows.
Thoughts of Wordworth’s Nature led to thoughts of Mystery and with a suddenness that still leaves me astounded, I felt the world change about me. The familiar became strange as I became detached. I entered the realm of wild nature, “red in tooth and claw”: to be sure, but filled with a wonderful wild beauty of which I was now a part. Everything seemed alive and if a rabbit had spoken to me or a tree bent down to catch me or a fox come trotting at my side for company, I would not have been surprised. I was frightened too, as one is when unsure what to expect next. I kept on running.
I am aware as I write these words that there is vanity inherent whenever one writes about oneself. It is unavoidable and the world would be a bland place indeed if we could not share its mystery. But let no one think that there is vanity in the experience. One is humbled. One is inadequate. One is only aware of the vast incomprehensibility of the world and how small one truly is. It is a terrible feeling really. A feeling of deep frustration. To be aware of mystery at one’s elbow (so to speak) but which still remains stubbornly hidden; aware that the world we see is insubstantial, more like a stage set viewed from the wings… and that it can vanish leaving….?
All I can say is we should be wiser. Perhaps people in olden times were better equipped to deal with such things since their reality was less mediated. We know both too much and too little. Perhaps we need a good scare from time to time to remind us of what it means to be human.
I do not remember the moment when I felt the real pain begin. My legs were tired, yes, and my lungs felt hot, but the real pain was in my stomach. And it became my new companion.
Nor do I really remember finishing the race. But I do remember stopping running when I got to the end. The pain however did not stop. I was told I had come 4th, but that meant nothing except a dawning realization that I would henceforth be expected to run races and the simultaneous realization that I could not and would not. I had done my dash in more ways than one..
All I wanted was to get home and to bed – which I did.
Alarmed that I could not get up, and perhaps at my rambling account of what had happened, my mother called in the doctor who simply said that I had “pushed myself too far” and that my mother should feed me on chicken soup and carrots – and plenty of fluids.
I was ill for three days. Ample time for me to mull over what had happened, but also for me to begin to explore, albeit tentatively, my own relationship with mystery whether it be the Alien or the Other, or Mother Nature. This speculation has born fruit in the form of science fiction novels and theatre performances, but also in a personal creed which, for want of a better title, I call the Threshold.
As has often been remarked, Life is a process of meetings and departures in which every meeting can be thought of as an invitation to pass over a new threshold., an invitation to the unexpected, to the unknown, to that which waits and is to be desired rather than feared.
Change. Growth. Decay. Renewal. As ever, ‘the readiness” is all, whether running or writing, even if at the end one finds oneself again at the place
“where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”.
Part 3. An Owl
It is in a spirit of celebration that I offer the following short poem to Roger in token of my gratitude for the numerous times he has helped me either by taking wise action on my behalf or by his sensible counsel. He has been a good and a generous friend, a humorous companion and one who has, in his athleticism and his scholarship, travelled in worlds that I can only dream of. I wish him and Kathrine all happiness in the future.
The poem recalls a meeting which took place one summer’s evening in a garden in France. The poem describes another moment when Nature seemed to open up and reveal herself. As in the race in Yorkshire fifty years ago, so in a small village in France, quite recently.
(An extract from Encounters in the Garden at Choussy)
Later, two days later, after my vigil,
I had another assignation.
It was not in my hammock, but out on my deck,
sipping red wine as evening fell.
It had been hot that day, and the walls
still gave out their warmth as darkness came,
silently crossing the face of the earth
like the outspread wing of a gliding bird.
Standing alone with head laid back,
watching the stars grow bright in the sky.
hearing the old rafters creak
in the barn, across the way….
Standing there, I saw, or thought I saw,
a something move within the barn.
(Ghosts are not unknown in this place
but that’s another tale to tell.)
And as I watched, more statue than man,
a giant bird, grey as slate,
dropped like a stone
from the ledge where we store the hay.
It fell straight! And I thought of execution,
that it surely must die, that the cats would be pleased
that soon I would know its weight,
as I dug a hole …
But, just before striking the ground,
the great wings spread, catching the air.
One glorious full-winged beat.
One move of silent precision,
and it lifted … Then …
Gaining height with every stroke of its wings,
it came straight at me. ….
Transfixed as any mouse,
I stood and stared.
I saw every beat of the wings
for time slowed down, and
only when I could see the beak,
the ears, the staring eyes,
only then did I raise my arm.
In that instant, it banked and swooped.
I felt the air cool on my cheek.
Had I reached out my hand, I could
have touched the feather ends of the wing.
I saw the big boxed head,
black eyes set within saucers,
and fan-tail spread. Saw too the talons,
tucked up beneath, like witches’ hands.
Flying past, the square head turned,
its gaze never leaving my face.
Staring a challenge right through me,
it said, “Were you a mouse or a rabbit, my friend,
I would be your death.
Hear my wings as I pass.”
But I heard not a sound.
They say the victim never does.
And it flew on, and up,
and round the barn,
into the gathering night …
What did I learn as I stood in the dark
before the moon hoisted over the barn?
in being there is everything.
In that broken moment of time,
more real than the wine in my glass,
two worlds had touched
and briefly joined… and then moved on.
And, for the moment, I asked no more.
My cup, as they say, was full,
though I wondered at the long
chain of coincidence
that led to this meeting
from the day I was born.
Later I thought I heard it call,
and hurried out on the moonlit deck,
but no bird came swooping by,
no second coming for me.
And indeed …
it may have been a dog I heard,
for they are often restless
when the owls are about.
I hoped that it would lodge with us, that bird,
making the barn its home,
that we might become more than
But since that night no sight I’ve seen.
Yet, it is out there, I know
that bird, my friend,
at home in the dark,
a shadow among trees,
calling me only
when a kill has been made.
One day we’ll meet again.
 I am pleased to report that the disqualification was over ruled the next day and Brasher was declared the winner; which means I suppose that he suffered both the agony and the ecstasy in short order.
 This experience is often misunderstood. It is the constancy of the stars that brings comfort in an alien land..
 Interestingly, in writing this I opened up my old copy of Wordsworth to check some lines, and there in the margin I found the words “Coincides with own experience.” How prosaic! How lovely!
 W.B. Yeats. Final line of The Circus Animals’ Desertion.