Fight For Your Write

One Word At A Time

It doesn’t matter what I am attempting in life: To progress, to proceed, to move on, to enjoy for goodness sake, there has to be a positive force behind me. That could be as clichéd as the wind literally at my back when I’m running. It could be the metaphorical wind at my back when I’m writing.

I need good, healthy energy. And a clear, even empty mind.

Distractions need to stop being distractions.

The dust and rubble of life’s challenges, the shroud of despair at news I can’t influence and the frustrations of everything I haven’t done, they all keep that wind from my back.

The writer in me gets buried beneath the clutter all too often. I know this, and I know it is mostly of my own making.

I cannot change what I haven’t yet done. Frustrations at my missed opportunities need to be acknowledged, but then forgotten.

Learn. Move on. Simple.

The great man back in the day.

The first draft of this blog post was written long hand, in my notebook, whilst munching on a avocado, red pepper and lettuce bagel, wedged in my work van, taking my lunch break. Just typing this paragraph gives me momentum, positivity, that clichéd wind in my sails!

The habits of 2020 and 2021 are returning. In both my reading and my writing. Take a bow Stephen King, because your gorgeous memoir and craft volume, On Writing, has yet again invigorated me. I own a well thumbed copy which has been devoured over and over. Not only that, On Writing has been my aural companion in the van for the last few shifts. Narrated by the great man himself too.

I’m hardly a fan boy, nor a religious devotee of King’s novels, but I know bloomin’ great writing when I see it. On Writing has fanned the winds of change at my back and I am letting it carry me.

A quick word for A.L. Kennedy’s writing craft volume of the same name too. A wonderful book which I’ve also devoured a few times.

Mobile telephone habits had started creeping back in, I was sinking into a “what’s the feckin’ point?” mood too regularly and spending far too long enacting the scroll of doom. I’ve got an app now which monitors my phone use and pings embarrassing messages on to the screen. These shame me into putting the thing down. It’s working too, I’m still keeping up to date with my little Twitter world, but avoiding getting sucked down an angry hole full of internet gloom.

I think about writing a lot. Nibbly, scratchy and proddy ideas whisper, or even shout sometimes, at my subconscious. These all keep me moving forward if I embrace them. The muse is back! Never went away really, I was just letting the bugger become idle. No more though, if he (or she or they) want to reside in my soul, then there is rent to pay. The rent is handed over in the currency of ideas, and there is no limit to how much I’ll accept.

Grandson, Charlie checking my notes.

All this enthusiasm returning to me and my writing is almost overwhelming. Previously, I might have got carried away with myself. Another lesson I’ve learned is to temper my short term ambitions. I do have a tendency to lose all sense of reality if I have a good day. “Excellent, I’ve written a thousand words, The Booker Prize will surely be mine next year“! That sort of thing.

If I have a flying thousand word day, I now bank it, but will happily settle for just a few notes in my journal the following day if that’s what time allows for.

Alison Kennedy is a bit of a hero of mine!

As Stephen King would answer in an interview “How do I write? One. Word. At. A. Time.”

Nicky, (regular readers will know Nicky through the gushing romantic references, prolifically scattered throughout my blog posts) my amazing lady wife, has always been 100% behind my writing ambitions and is frustrated on my behalf if I get stuck in a gloomy dead end. It is at best naïve and forgetful and at worse unfair and ungrateful for me to blame ‘family pressures‘ when my writing slows or stalls. Hell, even my brother eagerly offered to be a first reader. Nope, my family have my back, and I’d do well to remember that in darker times.

Some days are mostly fully booked before I get to add in ‘my’ goals. But if I’m honest they’re probably only 75% pre booked, even on the busiest days. The problem comes when I misuse the other 25% by wallowing and shouting at the unfairness of everything on the internet. Just accepting these truths helps, even the act of typing this gets me determined to be more focussed on being productive in the time windows which open up for me.

In our spare room we have bunk beds, a turbo trainer, more books shelves, AND A DESK! If I don’t want to be disturbed, why not go and sit at it!?

King is ruthless. He encourages us all to write, but offers no secrets, no hacks, no ‘cheats’, but insists “If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well.

A big up too for Writers HQ, their courses, blogs, writers’ tools and resources are arranged, as they say, to fit in with “bad ass writers with no time or money“! For a mere score (£20) each month you get access to everything they have to offer. I always try to do their snappy short course each month and have ongoing work-in-progress folders for some of their longer offerings. Checking in with Writers HQ once a day helps to wobble my head and prompt new thoughts and ideas.

What am I actually working on then?

I’ve got a flash fiction piece I’m batting around and there’s some new content appearing in my Scrivener which could well find its way into the novel (which I’ve only been working in for 4 years now!).

I like the idea of a regular blog post updating where my writing is at. It is the first week of April, the first week of the 2nd quarter of the year and it feels like I’m lining at the start of something.

What does that mean in reality?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Whatever progress I make this coming month, it’ll be………

ONE. WORD. AT. A. TIME.

Reset The Dials

Quite a lot.

Is the answer.

To what question?

Maybe this one:

Anything new in my life since I wrote this manifesto?

Yup. Quite a lot indeed.

A quarter of the year has now gone. I can’t think of anything in which I’ve achieved anywhere near a quarter of my aims.

Which sounds rather negative when I say it outloud.

To discover what’s been going on, let’s unpack my 2022 manifesto.

My Journal

At least my first pledge is going well! I said I’d write in my journal every single day, and I’m pleased to say that I always, always do. Winning eh? One nil up and we’ve only just kicked off. (Spoiler alert, this isn’t going to be a goal fest!)

Submitting Fiction

Ah. Well, er, well, you see, hhmmm. I’ve submitted a couple of times to Paragraph Planet (with one success!) but, alas, I am yet to enter the Friday Flash Fiction Face Off at Writers HQ. It just hasn’t happened. Read on to find out why?

Obviously work has to be fitted in occasionally too!

The Novel

I don’t even need to look back to remind myself of this pledge! I know it was to work for two hours every single week. And I know I haven’t. And I’m disgusted with myself. Disgusted I am. What’s going on? Read on to find out.

This Blog

I don’t need to look back for these pledges either! I know I’ve not contributed a single post since the turn of the year. Not one. To think there was a time when I hoped to review every book I’ve read, never mind any other posts I fancied writing. It’s not going very well is it, this manifesto. Imagine if you’d voted for me and it turned out I couldn’t keep a single promise I’d made….

Reading

Well, at least some success here to report. I pledged I’d buy from independent publishers and book shops and I’m pleased to say I’ve been good with that. Looking at my to-be-readpile alongside books I’ve read waiting for Nicky to enjoy, there’s a few there which have come direct from indies as well as a couple bought in independent book shops.

I haven’t one poem a day (another of my pledges) but I have acquired a few fine volumes and do enjoy a few poems each week.

I also pledged to read at least 6 books (over the course of 2022) which were published at least 10 years ago. The idea being that I don’t simply follow the current fads and trends (although I hope I never have) and browsed the shelves more. Reading is happening a lot more slowly this year, for the reasons you’ll discover if you can bear to read on. I have been buying a few older books though, and have added to the backlog with some excellent charity shop hauls. So far in 2022 I’ve read these books, check out my lists from 2021 and 2020 too.

Running, Health and Fitness

I never made any pledges for my running, other than to run as much as I can and/or want to. The events I listed in my manifesto are either long gone or fast approaching and I’m not looking like toeing the start line of any of them. Read on to discover why.

As for my health, well quite a lot has happened to impact my hopes for 2022. I’ve had some serious down time and have not been hitting my strength and conditioning targets. But, I don’t feel I’ve let myself down as there has been a dramatic hit to my health this year. As I keep saying, read on……

Why Oh Why And Why Again

The Good Stuff

We bloomin’ love him, and he seems quite happy to knock about with us oldies!

Nanny & Grandad Daycare: We look after our latest grandson, Charlie, 3 days a week. He is an absolute delight, a bubbly baby with a zest for life. But maybe we didn’t quite acknowledge just how tiring this might be! It is an absolute joy to spend the time with him and watch him grow and develop.

This simply shuffles other things down the league table of priorities. And sometimes we just want to eat (ah, eating…. read on my friend, read on) and chill. Picking up a pen and notebook, or sitting at my desk typing gives way to a binge of Drive To Survive or something similar.

Call the cute police!

As we become more accustomed to our roles, I’m sure we’ll find more of our other leisure pursuits fitting in to the time available (hence this blog post happening now). None of our challenges have disappeared they’ve simply been moved around to suit our lifestyle.

Talking Of Lifestyle: We have Become Vegans: And what a bloomin’ transformation this has been. We’ve both made difficult decisions before in our lives. We’ve both found better tracks to follow over the years and feel blessed that we ended up on the same track as each other. But this lifestyle change has been such a shift in thinking and everything about it has been positive. Neither of us are interested in becoming preachy about veganism, we just know it is exactly right for us. This was the moment when everything aligned for us to make the change.

And don’t worry, we’re getting plenty of protein!

In fact, as I keep telling people, we are eating like a king and queen. The final push to make the change was probably as a result of something far less positive.

The Bad Stuff: Covid

I wasn’t a happy bunny!

As anyone who was willing to listen, or to read this blog, would know, Nicky and I have a real love affair with Cornwall (Nicky was born at Long Rock for a start) and particularly the many coastal running events we’ve enjoyed down there. This year I was finally going to toe the line of the iconic Arc Of Attrition 50 and I had trained well throughout the autumn and winter, I was ready. About 10 days before The Arc I started to feel a bit ill, and a couple of days later I was testing positive, coughing relentlessly and felt truly awful. Luckily, Nicky got off pretty lightly, but I took to the box room and curled up in a ball of self pity. I was testing negative by race day but was getting breathless so quickly I couldn’t have contemplated 12 hours on the remotest, most challenging coastline in the far southwest of Cornwall.

Covid seemed to impact everything for those couple of weeks, and certainly sucked the energy and zest out of me, and to a certain extent Nicky. I don’t want to be dramatic but I couldn’t even be bothered to read my book and certainly didn’t write anything.

For those who were wondering how Charlie is. He’s still going strong in his 13th year.

Recovery from Covid is ongoing and I’m nursing a niggly foot after standing on a rock. DOH!

We’ve got so much to be thankful for though and I will never take for granted that I have been blessed with sharing my life with such a wonderful, funny, clever, inspiring, encouraging and quite beautiful lady wife Nicky. Not only that, our amazing family , our returning health and living in such a gorgeous part of the world.

As for my personal challenges, let’s just see where it all goes.

2022: A Manifesto

2022, are you ready for me?

Well, here we are a year on from my last manifesto. It’s true it seems, there is no ‘normal’. No ‘new normal’. I can’t even remember the ‘old normal’. I think I’ll just pat myself on the back for getting through as best I could.

I started well with my pledges and some of the momentum was maintained throughout the year. But not all of it. Far from it!

In 2022, I shall do better.

Writing 

I was pretty good at keeping a journal this year, even if for simply scribbling down a random sentence or reminder, this will continue in 2022.

I pledge to write in my journal, every single day. Maybe only to report that I have nothing to report, but reminding myself to keep my head in the game. Whenever I remember, and have the time, I will carry out ‘stream of consciousness’ writing exercises in the journal. A 10 or 15 minute alarm on my phone always helps and this is a perfect way to spend some of my break at work. Prompt books like the 242 Tiny Things To Write About are great too. Whatever I’m doing, I’ll make room for the pen.

I’m trying not to make any ambiguous commitments. And so for a writing challenge, I’m going to use the energy of Paragraph Planet and Writers HQ to get my creative mind actually creating. This will help my writing craft with any luck, but also sow seeds of greater stories to grow from the ideas.

Writers HQ is a great writing community and course library offering motivation, prompts and prods by the pint pot. They also run a weekly Friday Flash Face off where members simply enter their flash fiction (very short pieces of writing) for mutual critique. ‘Tis a fine thing. As is Paragraph Planet who publish one 75 word paragraph every single day. Both are free to get involved with and are great ways to prompt writing. Like I say, many larger ideas for pieces start with a word or 75.

Still sounds ambiguous, I hear you cry. Well:

I pledge to, at the minimum, submit one piece to either the Writers HQ Friday Flash Face Off, or Paragraph Planet, every single week.

And while I’m at it, I’ll make sure I keep up with my poetry. I’ve had small successes – online journals published a few pieces and I’ll take confidence from that. Working on a draft of a poem idea for 30 minutes in my break at work is so much more rewarding than 30 minutes of the scroll of doom on my phone. I pledge to submit at least one poem per month to a literary publication or competition.

See, I’m getting into this now!

The Novel

Ahhhh, the Novel. Working title Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners. I’ve been chipping away at this for over 3 years now and I’m nowhere near a first draft. I think about the book a lot, I talk to the main characters, I scribble ideas in my journal. I’m very much writing the thing. I just need to, er, actually write the thing. Harping back to Writers HQ, they are exponents of the ‘timed writing’ idea – sit at a desk (or stand, or lie in a field with a notebook, whatever is available to me) and set a timer for 10, 20 or 30 minutes, phone out of reach, and just write. This definitely works for me. So, with that in mind…..

I pledge to write for a minimum of two hours (using the timed method) soley on my novel, every week during 2022.

What about The Blog? This here blog. I get ideas for a blog post come to me all the time. Particularly when I’m driving around in my job. I need to make sure I keep my notebook handy and every time I stop, jot these random thoughts down. I heard the great author David Keenan say that if he has an idea, he knows it is a good one if he can immediately recall it when he picks up his notebook. If I don’t use the notebook, a Booker Prize winning idea may well slip away!

I pledge to post at least one book review per month to the blog. I also pledge to add at least one other post, on any subject, per month as well. If I commit to any more it will only lead to disappointing myself and then slipping down the all to familiar ‘What’s the feckin’ point?’ hole! If I write more, then great. If not, at least I’ve set a reasonable target to hold myself to account.

So that’s writing. Why am I going to do all of that? Because I bloomin’ well love writing. I may or may not be any good at it. I’m certainly not going to make any money from it. People either will or won’t read my words. But even the occasional comment I receive about a piece, telling me that what I’ve written resonates, that’s enough to know I belong.

Reading

I won’t be setting a target for number of books to read this year, as with my running, it only leads to creating tension instead of the positivity I should be getting from my two favourite hobbies, but I will make a series of pledges similar to last year.

I pledge to read at least one poem every single day. Every single podcast I listen to about writing, or books on writing, every interview with authors, they all say “READ WIDELY” when asked to give aspiring writers a tip. I find poetry helps me pick apart language, it challenges the way we express ideas. Poetry also feeds the soul, nourishing emotional dark spots as well as pushing my creativity.

I also pledge to buy one book a month from an independent publisher, by an author I haven’t read before. I did this in 2021 and it’s great to rummage beyond the headline and heavily promoted books in the literary world. Not that I don’t enjoy the writing of our most famous authors, but I also know there’s a wealth of talent out there waiting to be discovered. Where possible, I will buy these books from independent bookshops too.

Not only that, I pledge to read a minimum of 6 books during 2022 which were published at least ten years ago. This is another way of avoiding the trap of simply reading off the 3 for 2 table in Waterstones. Not that there aren’t great books on the first table you come to in our flagship bookseller, but there is so, so much more to discover.

I also pledge to buy at least one literary magazine, journal or chapbook every month too. I enjoy the marvellous creative non-fiction journal, Hinterland and enjoy a subscription from them, my pledge will be in addition to that. Bring on 2022, the year of reading not scrolling I hope.

So my reading should look after itself if I carry out all of the above pledges.

I bloomin’ love reading and books!

Running And Fitness And Health

This time last year, we were facing another round of cancelations due to the ongoing Covid 19 situation and all the training I had done for The Arc 50 looked like being in vain. The situation didn’t improve and the event was sadly postponed until 2022. In precisely four weeks time I am hoping to line up on the stage of The Minack Theatre in Cornwall and tackle the 50 miles along the coast path to Porthtowan. Fingers crossed eh!?

Other events with entries booked are The East Devon Round ultra marathon at the end of April, The Stafford Half Ironman in June, The Long Course Weekend in July and a rather epic bike ride at the end of the summer.

As for Nicky, she is going to attempt to get to Copenhagen at the third time of asking for her Ironman. Add to this the Outlaw triathlon she started in 2019 only for the organisers being forced to abandon the event after the swim leg due to the biblical weather conditions. They were right to, deep flooding and fallen trees littered the bike course. So this is the 4th year of her pinning her 42 week training plan to the kitchen door.

I’ll never be as organised as Nicky…….. she has every session pencilled in for the next 8 months. Then again, she is attempting something HUGE which involves swimming, cycling and running a very, very long way! She needs to be balancing her training. Whereas I am naturally more chaotic. I will make sure I get my long runs done out there on the trails. Other than that, I’ll run when I feel like it, wherever the the mood takes me. If I’m tired from work, I’ve found there’s no point in forcing myself. I just want to carry on enjoying every step.

So, as in 2021, in 2022 I pledge to NOT attempt to follow a training plan.

My goal for ALL of these events is to do as much as I can to give myself the best chance of completing them. I will not train if I’m over tired from the combination of working, training and any other aspect of life, I will rest if rest is what’s required.

I also pledge this, as I did in 2021: I will, every single day, do either some conditioning work, strength exercises, stretches or other body maintenance. Even if that is something as simple as a few stretches, I’ll be treating my body right. My job if anything, more than the running, tends to give me aches and pains.

This will hopefully give me the best chance of keeping healthy as my aging body builds towards these challenges. As would eliminating the absolute crap I’m guilty of guzzling! So, time for another food pledge (last year’s lasted 6 weeks before I caved in to a hamper of chocolate!).

I pledge to not snack at work. I’m going to only snack during evenings after big (as in 2 hours plus) training days. Puddings will still be the law after roast dinners of course. Let’s see if we can break the pattern this year.

And Finally

We’re all just living the life we’ve got, making decisions as best we can. I think I just need to decide the person I really want to be and let that drive every decision I make.

If anyone has got to the end of this, I’ll be mightily impressed. With that sort of grit and resolve, you should definitely be the type of character who will stick to their New Years resolutions.

2022. Bring. It. On.

Cockington Christmas Caper

Well, well, well, a running race review. There hasn’t been one of them since we ran the gorgeous Big Pilgrimage Marathon back in August. Normally these blogs are reserved for those big away day adventures or marathons, but we had such a good time at The Cockington Christmas Caper that I thought I should share the story.

The event starts and finishes probably less than two miles from our house, the route takes in a selection of trails, most of which I run a couple of times a week, and the distance is 7.5ish miles. Yet I have the urge to tell you ALLLL about it.
The day started with a leisurely breakfast as the event didn’t get under way until 10.30. We didn’t even need to warm the car up as our good friend, and regular star of running stories on this blog, Martin (a.k.a. The Silver Fox), was kind enough to pick us up on the way.


Parking in the beautiful village of Cockington, we made our way, wrapped in hoodies and coats – it was feckin’ freezing – to race HQ outside the cricket pavilion at what must be the quaintest cricket club in the land. Numbers pinned, we kept our hoodies on until very nearly kick-off time before handing them to the friendly young chaps manning the baggage tent.
A word here for the event organisers, volunteers, marshals, registration staff and everybody else involved in the event – they were quite frankly awesome.

The Cockington Christmas Caper is in its (I believe) 17th year (having missed 2020 because of you-know-what) and is a truly local event. Organised by The Barnabas Sport Trust and helping to fund their great work with those less able to access education, training or sporting activities, they manage to keep the price at £14. A rather pleasant surprise to receive a tote bag, mug and medal at the finish considering the entry fee.

The 220 (sold out every year) runners set off for a brief 200 meter of downhill charge on slippery grass before starting the first of umpteen climbs. This pretty much set the tone for the run, if you like running on flat, predictable surfaces, this definitely isn’t for you. Martin set off chasing the youngsters while me and Nicky settled nicely into the pack.

The grounds in front of Cockington Court are beautiful and seeing a line of colourful running tops snaking through them as the freezing rain gave way to winter sunshine gave an added brightness to the scene.
I ran most of these trails the day before The Caper and there wasn’t a hint of where the course might go – all of the signs and tape must have been put in place early on race day. I’m quite confident (and I do have history with this) that it would be a near impossibility to miss a turn, or veer off the route, the markings were so comprehensive.

Add to that the marshals, at every pinch point and major turn a high-viz hero was there to cheerfully point us in the right direction.
What is there to say about the course? Probably 70% is on gnarly or muddy trails and fields and the rest on more made up trails like compacted gravel and about 100m on tarmac! I bloomin’ loved every step. There are so many ups and downs, totalling about 1600 feet of elevation. Some of the muddy downhill sections were bordering on ski slopes by the time half the pack had charged down them.
Martin is as generous a friend as you could ever wish for, both with his time, energy and support and he is always happy to get the coffees in. He is also known for being as tight as a you-know-what’s-wotsit when he thinks he’s being done over by marketeers…….
“How was the mud in those old road shoes Martin?”
“Terrible, I was sliding everywhere…….”
I’m saying nothing!

The finish is naughty, back up the same 200m hill we started on and with everybody watching and cheering, we felt the need to offer something in the way of a ‘sprint’ finish.

Fabulous run in a glorious location and I can’t believe that, despite it being so close to home, I’ve never run it before!

Nicky and I do get so, so much joy from trail running together and today was bliss, we ran well, the woods and countryside looked just splendid with leaves of all colours carpeting the floor and I feel like weve added to the bank of precious memories of our adventures together. And we were home for lunch!

SEVEN NIGHTS AT THE FLAMINGO HOTEL by Drew Gummerson

I pledged back at the end of 2020 that I would buy at least 12 books during the year from independent publishers. Which means that I have been lucky enough to have discovered hidden gems such as Seven Nights At The Flamingo Hotel by Drew Gummerson from Bearded Badger Publishing. A debut foray into novels for the publisher.

Twitter is my only ‘go-to’ place for a bit of a social media fix having deactivated my Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn (whatever that was) accounts, and this is where I picked up the Flamingo vibe. As I write, the book is heading for another reprint, and deservedly so. I have to be honest, I took a while to get around to ordering, but when I did I decided to go all-in with Bearded Badger – Gummerson’s novel plus 5 splendid chapbooks of cutting edge poetry, most with a regional bent around Badger’s native Derbyshire.

Anyway, I distract myself, I was here to review the novel.

It is indeed, as it says in the title, set over a week at the Flamingo Hotel. The hotel has kept its name despite us soon finding out that the actual flamingos met a grizzly end on the nearby motorway. The cover and title might tease you into thinking that this is set in some classic American freeway motel with cool tunes on the jukebox and even cooler visitors. It’s not. The Flamingo Hotel is firmly ensconced in a faceless, nameless grubby town and sits perilously close to a motorway. And its visitors, not to mention staff, are a disparate and sometimes desperate bunch to say the least.

Drew Gummerson

It’s hilarious. Let’s get that straight. The number of bums and penises which feature, either as methods of transmitted Morse Code or being, willingly or otherwise, manhandled is startling. The book will, honestly, have you snorting with laughter. The author dishes up a feast of non-stop revelry mixed with relentless drudgery. Our main character (who remains nameless throughout) is either drifting into fantasy worlds where he will become hugely successful and popular or attempting to find fun and adventure to see him through his long days as a kitchen porter.

The pace is furious, almost told as a stream of consciousness. Occasionally I folded the book onto my lap to draw breath, or cringe in embarrassment. The collection of players in the story are wildly diverse and offer the protagonist an assortment of distractions, both real and imagined, from his day to day life.

Amongst the frivolity and cheeky narrative there is a genuine coming of age tale unfolding too. Being told in the second person had me, as the reader, checking myself for any of the traits as the book prods you incessantly with “you will”, “you have”, “you are” narration. I love it for that.

That narration is hardly chronological, but all distractions into the actual past, or imagined future, are set within the context of the seven days. It is chaotic, but feels just right to be so. Different moments in each day evoke memories or prompt visions, often in frankly bizarre and unlikely passages. Quirky doesn’t quite capture just how ‘off the wall’ the book is in places. It is a fast read, there are no pauses for reflection, our character’s life barrels from one scene to the next without dwelling on any point.

Beneath the seemingly light-hearted and sometimes frivolous telling of the story, we are slowly learning about the sad and distressing past which might explain some of the behaviour and how the character is maybe in denial about what he actually desires from the world, or indeed from the people, around him.

My advice to readers looking for something fresh, lively, as well as tongue in cheek could do worse than check out this great book. But also, as I have learned to do, look beyond the 3 for 2 tables in Waterstones, there is some brilliant work happening out there which all deserves its moment in the limelight.

I heartily recommend this book.

Check out a list of all the books I’ve read this year, and also in 2020. And, of course all of the other books I have reviewed.

At Last A (Big) Pilgrimage

It’s been a while………

I’m starting to really enjoy avocado by the way. We were having our first meal out since, well, since who knows when (Feb 2020?) and I elected to have a dish where avocado is listed as an ingredient.

The world might have paused on its axis during the last eighteen months, but my palette has become bang up to date, those recipes in the Saturday Guardian are looking almost accessible!

Why were we eating out? The same reason we were having our first night away from home in eighteen months too – we had gone to run an event. The Big Pilgrimage Marathon, the first appearance on the running calendar of this quirky looking offering from Big Feat Events.

I wore a shirt too. With buttons and everything. We felt so grown up as we ordered our chicken and avocado.

Contemplating avocado

Our Premier Inn sat on an identikit retail and industry park which could have been in any number of towns around the UK. Bloomin’ convenient though – as well as our meal next door in The Beefeater, we visited Decathlon and the MASSIVE Tesco without needing to use the car.. We’re from sleepy Devon see, “ooo shiny things” our gaping, gawping mouths dribbled as we hunted for a pint of milk in a supermarket the size of Paignton.

For our first ‘away’ fixture for 18 months we had been tempted by the promise of historic trails, epic skylines, farmland, beaches and boardwalks, not to mention, woods, forests, an abbey, several churches and a cheeky boat ride. Yes, The Big Pilgrimage sounded right up our street. 

The route follows the first 27/28 ish miles of a recently discovered Pilgrim Trail called The Old Way. Our section started at the site from The Pilgrim Fathers left our shores on The Mayflower (in Southampton) and finished at Fort Nelson, home of The Nelson Monument and The Royal Armouries Museum. Which was handily only ten minutes from the aforementioned Premier Inn. Which was where we were to leave our car. It’s almost as if they’ve planned this stuff.

Nothing wrong with the Premier Inn, but we didn’t have the best night’s sleep…… 

one of us is VERY organised…… (it’s not me)

“WE’VE OVERSLEPT!….. Oh no, it’s 11.30pm”

“THERE’S SOMEBODY IN THE ROOM! WHAT ROOM? WHERE AM I? WE’VE OVERSLEPT…….”

That sort of thing. All feckin’ night.

It was quite a relief when the 4.15 alarm went off.

That’s early! I hear you exclaim. Well, yes it is, but the rather snazzy, leather interiored National Express coach charged with delivering us to Southampton was leaving at 6.15am. And we wanted time for showers, coffee and Weetabix complete with lukewarm milk. 

We gathered our kit. A VERY straight forward process for Nicky as she meticulously laid it out the previous night….. I think I ‘put’ mine out and so, as usual, I left the kit gods to decide whether I had everything I needed. 

En route to the start

As the coach pulled away from Fort Nelson (nr Portsmouth) in the gloomy half light, we hadn’t yet appreciated the panoramic view from here. After finishing some hours later in the sunshine, we were astonished by the vistas on offer. The very bright and cheery Big Feat crew member had ticked our name off the coach list and counted us all aboard. The welcoming and friendly driver hadn’t quite grasped the brief as he asked “What time is your return journey?”. “We’re running back.” His face seemed to ask “Why?”

Visit The Isle Of Wight Festival” screamed the huge posters as we pulled in near the Red Funnel ferry terminal. In the spirit of Rob Deering’s Running Tracks (see my review here), this immediately evoked memories of visiting the festival in 2006. What a weekend – The Prodigy, Foo Fighters, The Kooks, Primal Scream, Lou Read, Maximo Park…..

Registration was a jolly and good humoured affair at the water’s edge. We collected our race numbers complete with our first sticker of the day. Yes, we collected stickers which we then attached to our race numbers. What a great and individual touch – a volunteer in Pilgrim hat, naturally, handed us a bespoke sticker at seven of the notable points along the route. Nice.

The race briefing delivered to the 70 or so marathon runners captured the mood perfectly. Nothing to fear. Keep the water on your right. Look after each other. Don’t fret the ferry crossing………

And we were off, a watery sun soon dispensing with the slightly autumnal chill. 

3 miles of Southampton’s waterside suburbs gave way to greenery at Westwood as we started on the trails proper. Not before we had crossed the impressive bridge over the River Itchen and received a sticker from a young Pilgrim dressed head to toe in Southampton FC gear (getting ready to host Manchester United later in the day I believe). 

From there we tackled all sorts of shore line – paths, shingle beaches, compacted mud – and weaved in and out of the industry and piers lining Southampton Water. Before long (7 ½ ish miles) we had reached the beautiful village of Hamble and its much anticipated ferry ride. Three of the Hamble Pink Ferries were shuttling runners over the short crossing and we waited a couple of minutes before enjoying our mini cruise. 

Nicky and I are quite used to trail events having quirky sections and approximate distances and so, as advised in the race briefing, we didn’t fret about the boat ride. A couple of runners were in a quandary about whether to pause their running watches. We just enjoyed the ride and were soon having to propel ourselves using our feet again as we disembarked. 

The Warsash Nature Reserve on the shoreline came next, lush and green and picturesque and still very, very flat! Through miles 9 to 12 we were still following the shore as it again became quite industrial. Nicky and I are used to running relentlessly up-and-down trails at home and the lack of elevation seemed to be tiring our legs in different ways.

As we approached the halfway point the course turned and headed inland. With the beautiful marshes of Titchfield Haven to our right, the runners in the 14 (ish) mile half marathon race were crossing their finishing line as we passed. Always looking to raise a smile, I drew on my footballing glory years and shaped to swerve left into the finishing funnel before side stepping and running straight past – this raised a smile or too and we exchanged some laughs with a couple of spectators enjoying the chilled out atmosphere in the sunshine. We then headed off through the beautiful village of Titchfield itself.

Titchfield Abbey is really quite spectacular and worth the very brief detour to enjoy in its full glory. The trails from this point on were glorious, old railway lines, farmland and woods. At some point during all of this I managed to take a tumble. “No lazy steps” is one of my trail running mantras – a few years ago I did go through a phase of hurling myself to the floor at random times. 

Anyway, on some particularly firm and even ground, I caught my feet in a trailing bramble and down I went.

“Are you ok?”

“Yes”

“Are you sure?”

“Can we talk about something else!”

“Have you hurt your pride……..?”

That might have been as we went through Wickham (around mile 21) now I think about it!

Then The Meon Valley Trail which was busy ish with families enjoying the gorgeous and accessible countryside. This was followed by The Forest Of Bere which preceded the two longest climbs of the day as we began to sense the finish line within our grasp. From mile 23, still in the forest, we had caught a few fellow runners and felt we were really in our stride. Running well and taking walk breaks for difficult terrain or to eat and drink, combined with being in the company of my partner in adventure, my beautiful and inspiring soul mate Nicky, the miles and time simply slid by.

This really is our happy place – running together on the trails, either talking dribble, solving our quandaries from ‘real’ life, or just enjoying each others company in silence as we let the peace of the surroundings seep into us. Before we knew it we were at the ‘200m to go’ sign. A lovely short downhill section on the grass and we held each others hand aloft to celebrate another challenge completed. Of Nicky’s 38 marathons and my 45, 27 have been completed side by side. It is the best feeling.

This route is a belter. The work that has happened, in advance and on the day, in creating it, marking it and marshalling it shines through. The finished product is superb, take a bow Big Feat Events.

Oooo look, a video too:

Running Tracks by Rob Deering

Some books speak to me, speak of truth. Some have me nodding along with a wry smile, like I’ve been found out. Some books find the words which have previously failed me, expressing how I feel. Some have me laughing out loud when an ironic, or comedic moment lurches from the page. Some have me needing to take a quiet moment.

This.

This book does all of that.

So. Why should YOU read this book? Read on and you will discover……

Firstly, you don’t need to be a fan of running and/or passionate about music to enjoy Running Tracks?

Not as much as you’d think. 

The years since Rob Deering discovered running are richly documented here, along with the soundtrack to those years. So, if you had absolutely zero interest in either running or music, it could potentially pass you by. But, I promise you it won’t.

Running Tracks is about so much more than that. 

Break time in the van is reading time for me.

This book is about how we progress in life, about what makes us, what develops within us. Rob Deering has music in his blood – as a musician and as a listener. Running appeared later in his life. But it has become just as much a part of his DNA. The book goes far deeper than merely chronicling that progression. The author beautifully shows us how a new hobby or passion gets moulded into our soul, our personality, our very way of life, whilst still maintaining the truth of our self. It’s a neat, clever and humbly delivered trick which worked to get me thinking about how I personally have evolved into the person I am now.

Rob Deering is a comedian, musician, director, radio host, podcaster, and now author. He is also a runner. Through his running, and the platform of his other work, he is a prolific fundraiser for Parkinson’s UK, a cause which isn’t just close to his heart, it is in his heart.

Rob Deering’s first book and he’s immediately wearing out the black marker pens!

He delivers his debut foray into the publishing world with a refreshing and poised pen. Using the parallel of music and running to coincide with moments of his life, he has given us a unique take on ‘memoir’.  

From his personally curated, but randomly delivered playlist, there’s a tune for 26 (point two, naturally) of these occasions and each paints a vivid picture of an unforgettable moment in time for Rob. 

The book feels rich and warm. His passion for the combination of music and running radiates from every page. There is nothing dictatorial about the musical choices, the author doesn’t impose his listening preferences upon us, he simply says why each piece of music so perfectly fitted each moment of the run in question, and how that reflects equally perfectly on a point in his life.

The details he adds about the structure of each tune only serves to immerse us deeper into why a rhythm, bass line, chord structure or sample hit the spot for him.

Running Tracks paints great pictures of the author’s favourite running locations.

Similarly with running, Deering has a refreshing honesty to his writing – I have no doubt that even non-runners will have no trouble relating to him. He employs an accessible style of narration and there is no attempt to mystify the act of running. The author, like most of us, has learned as he has progressed, often (again like most of us) by getting things wrong! This journey plays out through the book – putting routes together, pacing himself, finding the types of runs which bring him the most pleasure – his writing celebrates all of this and shows how available exercise can be. 

Why did I enjoy this book so much?

Running Tracks feels personal to me in many ways. Not least because (full disclosure), my name features in the back of the book alongside the many hundreds of others who supported the book at its inception. 

With fellow comedian, author and runner Paul Tonkinson, recording an episode of Running Commentary.

My to-be-read pile was always likely to feature a book about running and music. This is especially the case when it is written by half of the duo behind my favourite podcast (Running Commentary, alongside Paul Tonkinson). The fact that it is a fine work of writing is icing on the cake.

Music and running feature so heavily in my own life and even though we might often be on quite different pages in our choices of runs or tunes, it is most definitely the same love. We both put on a pair of trainers and get out of the door, and we’re always glad that we did.

Rob Deering loves the big (and not so big) city marathons, the book visits London and both New and old York, whilst I’m more likely to be found at a low key event in a field somewhere. Also, some of the random and inconsistent distances of my events might play with his head, the crowds of runners and spectators at his favourites would play with mine. BUT, it is still the same love.

And here’s the biggie, I simply don’t like running with headphones. Rob Deering feels that so much of the running experience ties into the playlist accompanying him. It is STILL the same love, we all find our rhythm when we set out on our running journeys and how we access that rhythm is a personal thing. 

All of which still doesn’t mean that music doesn’t feature in, nor evoke memories of, my own running. I admit to being slightly jealous as my running and music associations will never have the immediacy of Deering’s, but it is still, I reckon, the same love.

Take chapter 20 where he talks about the incredible band, Rush. I won’t spoil any of his stories by expanding on where and how Rush’s The Camera Eye sound-tracked a run for Rob (go and buy the book and find out!). BUT I can tell you that every time I hear Rush it transports me back to Toronto Beaches Jazz Festival Half Marathon on a trip as a guest of their long time producer, Terry Brown. A story for another day……

There are many other moments and references in this fabulous tome which speak directly to me, but the book is Rob Deering’s story to tell, not mine. I simply whole heartily recommend that you grab yourself a copy and find out for your selves. 

My copy is already well thumbed!

As a work of standalone creative non fiction, Running Tracks is a joy to me. It is a refreshing departure from those generic and formulaic memoirs of the famous. I was thrilled to read a book full of tricks and surprises which deals emotions in spades. I rolled easily from chapter to chapter, eager to peer through another window into the author’s world.

You know what, go and buy it, find out for yourself!

Links:

robdeering.com

Rob Deering’s Running Tracks Radio Hour

Running Commentary

Twitter

Parkinsons UK

THE WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION

My beautiful wife Nicky is always surprising me with new challenges. Let’s learn to swim – and then tackle a 2.5 challenge across Weymouth Bay. We run marathons – let’s try and run 100. Let’s cycle the length of France (she’s already a Lands End to John O’Groats veteran) So it’s hardly surprising that these challenges have now extended to books!

Let’s read the shortlist for the Women’s Prize and pick our own winners.

And so a cardboard box duly arrived and we treasured that ‘new books’ aroma as we teased this gorgeous collection out into the light.

The Women’s Prize originated as The Orange Prize, after the male dominance of book awards reached the ridiculous stage of there being no women on The Booker Prize shortlist in 1991. Please check out the story of the Women’s Prize and the great work they do year round beyond the headline prize.

This year’s judges include Bernadine Evaristo and Elizabeth Day, have a listen to what they are looking for in a winning novel.

Here’s the thing, I briefly started reviewing books I’d been given – kindly passed to me by authors or publicists. I find that so, so hard; so I have stopped signing up for ‘free’ books. I couldn’t stand the guilt or the pressure to ‘enjoy’ a book before I wrote about it. With the Women’s Prize challenge that Nicky and I have taken on, we have ordered and paid for the books which feels much more comfortable when it comes to appraising them. Which is handy, because I sadly haven’t loved all six of these.

I created a score card for the books – marking them out of ten for things like originality, emotional impact and whether I would hunt out other work by that author.

So. In reverse order……

NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS by Patricia Lockwood. (DNF!) If I don’t enjoy a book, or worse, I abandon reading it, I am in no doubt that says as much about me as it does the book. I suppose I still see reading as an escape from the random scroll of doom of social media. This book is told via a social media ‘timeline’. The random nature of the posts show a narrative unfolding amongst the chaos. I’m afraid I read the first 20 or so pages a couple of times and then had a nosey at the prize’s reading guide. By this point I was confused and frustrated and moved on. I know I should embrace challenging themes and forms, but I really was struggling!

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyashi. (42/90) A poignant and dark study of immigrant reality in America. A very sad story in many ways – a tale of family and loyalty as well as addiction and the frailty of friendships. I found it a restless read as I squirmed at the exposure of an addicts deterioration and the depression of our protagonist’s mother. Gifty, the story’s main character is obsessively working on mice in her laboratory, hoping to explain the brain process of her own brother’s addiction. All the time her mother is cocooned at home sinking deeper into her gloom. The book tackles many issues, including the racism and rejection of ‘other’ in small American communities, and I can see how it has found it’s place amongst the potential winners of this fine literary prize.

HOW THE ONE ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE by Cherie Jones. (54/90) It never ceases to amaze me when I look up an author after reading their book and see the words ‘debut novel’. This is a powerhouse of a book – far beyond ordinary achievements of the average debutant. The main character, Lala, is trapped in a violent and controlling marriage and the book doesn’t flinch from the painful reality of such a life. Set in the ironically titled Paradise on the Caribbean island, Barbados, we get a full exposure of life below the glossy images in the holiday brochures. The book starts with a horrific murder and carries on from there. Cherie Jones holds the reader just out of reach and I couldn’t help but turn the pages despite slightly dreading what might come next. There’s no doubt the author is an extraordinary talent; the book may not have quite impressed me the way the following three have, but it is a masterclass in characterisation and controlling a wild narrative.

PIRENESI by Susanna Clarke. (59/90) Here we go. A fantasy novel. A flippin’ fantasy novel. Obviously I would just skim read this and cast it aside as slightly bonkers. Except I absolutely loved it. Sure the setting takes some getting used to for those who like their novels set on the streets of Sheffield or in the grimy apartments of hidden New York. Once I got my head around the endless halls and gothic statues which dominate the story. The main character, known as Piranesi after being given the name by the ‘Other’, methodically maps the statues and the waters which ebb and flo around them. These, at least to start with, are the only characters. They meet weekly and quite early on I found myself suspicious of the ‘other’ and willing Piranesi to be less trusting and more questioning. The writing is exquisite and I couldn’t help but feel myself entering this strange world of legend, an underground complex with its tidal flooding and bones of previous lives. I can’t say too much, the whole book is a slow reveal. The main character is a fabulous study of an innocent mind living in isolation followed by a slow drip of realisation as the truth of his surroundings become apparent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this won.

UNSETTLED GROUND by Claire Fuller. (72/90) What a beautiful book this is. The cover is simply gorgeous. I nervously turned to page one hoping not to find the contents an anti climax. Far from it, this is a belting story. So many of the characters in all of this short list are living tough and almost unthinkable lives. Here, middle aged twins, brother and sister, suddenly find themselves marooned in a life they barely understand. They had lived with their mother until she passed away at home (an episode not without its dark humour in the telling) and left them ill equipped to sustain their existence. A whole barrage of history related to the land on which their cottage sits and the land owner himself reveals itself as the twins’ world starts to implode. Julius, who is more wild and adventurous and his twin sister, Jeanie, are as frustrating as they are endearing to watch. Their inability, or in some cases, refusal, to accept or engage with the help that is available had been pleading with them! Claire Fuller writes this so elegantly and her portrayal of the existential crisis endured in the twins’ simple country life is mesmerising. There’s a cracking, slowly revealed story here, don’t think for one minute it is all contemplative puddle gazing. An impressive tale of country life, family and the secrets they hold. Should it win? Well, for me it is this or:

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennet. (75/90) Using my highly scientific scoring method, Brit Bennet just pips Claire Fuller to be my pick for the Women’s Prize. This book too features twins and they are also from a strange and remote town. There the similarity ends. The twins in Bennet’s epic novel are from the (fictitious) town of Mallard in Louisiana. Mallard is populated by ‘light’ but black folk. The town’s population would “never be white” but are also determined “to never be treated like Negroes”. Two teenage twins, girls, Desiree and Stella, find themselves hemmed in by the oppressive way of living in the town and run away to find a new life. The are quite different in their outlook and they find themselves forging different paths. Stella almost accidently discovers that she can pass as ‘white’ and is soon pushing this lie to forge a new identity and existence. It covers intense friendships, appalling relationships, loss, the deep history of racism and the pull and push of racism. The supporting cast are a colourful bunch and they each had me along for the ride; performing queens, a bounty hunter, a spoiled teenager rebelling against her privilege as well as the ever present townsfolk back in Mallard. The writing is pitch perfect, the ambitious writer in me was drooling over relentlessly beautiful sentences. Should it win? Yup (although my heart can’t let go of Unsettled Ground!)

RAINBOW MILK by Paul Mendez

A debut novel. A bloomin’ debut. Such power and emotion in his first book. Take a bow Paul Mendez.

Now. Be warned.

It is a bit rude in places. Ok, it’s pretty feckin’ graphic. Those of a sensitive nature might find their eyes watering in the early stages. The full force created by the urges of the young man at the centre of this story are quite openly exposed. Mendez writes with an ferocious passion. The story deserves every bit of the raw sex which sets the scene early in the book.

Before that though, the book begins 50 years earlier with a young Jamaican couple (from the Windrush generation) struggling to come to terms with their decision to move from the Caribbean Island to the Midlands of England. They are, of course, linked to the story which follows. This sets a bleak backdrop of racism and forgotten dreams and gives context to the rest of the book.

Jesse, a young black man, brought up a Jehovah’s Witness, finds his life in the Black Country capitulating and ends up fleeing to London where he finds he can use his youthful black body for financial gain. His journey to this point is delivered with a series of necessarily blunt blows within the narration. A white step father is kept from getting close to Jesse by a mother who shows nothing but resentment and disappointment towards her son.

I believe Rainbow Milk is closely personal to Mendez and his delivery of both the rough physical moments, the heart-breaking cries for help as well as Jesse’s many cringe worthy and naïve moments is so exquisitely poised. And the issues at play are voiced with such force that I struggled to get my head around this being a debut!

The crushing isolation felt by Jesse as he becomes increasingly desperate to express himself both emotionally and physically leads to him mistakenly seeking sexual attention from a fellow young Witness. This leads to his removal from the Jehovah’s Witness fellowship and cements the estrangement from his mother and step father. It also sets the scene for him fleeing to London.

He suffers at the hands of some of the men he encounters but also finds the sexual joy he imagined with others. Amongst the one night stands, quick and quickly forgotten fucks in toilet cubicles, gradually a love story unfolds. After a particularly rough customer, Jesse finds himself needing to quickly understand the risks still at play of AIDS.

The drinking, the drugs and the debauchery are just as full on as the sex, until a near tragedy slowly brings him together with a man, Owen, who seems to truly love him. Paul Mendez gives us hope amongst the chaos and is maybe saying there is a way to navigate this life if we have faith in ourselves. Jesse battles an abusive childhood, religious oppression, relentless racism and homophobia as well as rejection, loneliness and terrifying health scares.

The musical references are fabulous, Jesse finding solace and motivation in some of the great R’nB and soul greats, as well as cutting edge contemporary artists. Through Owen, the man who he falls in love with, he discovers the music of Joy Division and Public Image Limited and finds himself deeply entranced (helped by the drug use naturally) by some of the sounds from my era!

Mendez had me rooting for Jesse throughout and plenty of tears were shed along the way.

A riveting, heart wrenching and ferocious read which manages to caress the senses as well as battering them.

I’m saying nothing more, you’ll have to read it to find out for yourselves!

PS: The title isn’t referring to what I thought it was….

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead

Here we go. Having been humbled by the prose, the depth, the power and the sheer beauty of this book, I’m struggling to find sentences worthy of describing it.

Colson Whitehead’s 2016, Purlitzer Prize winning novel is just tremendous. Why? I shall try and explain.

Firstly, it is exquisitely crafted. There isn’t a wasted sentence in the book. My novel writing ambitions (and indeed, my efforts to date) feel like the surface of a puddle after delving into the oceans of depth on offer here. And that’s before we start on the extraordinary story. This is the second Colson Whitehead book I’ve read, and they have both been magnificent. (The other being The Nickel Boys)

The story is exquisite. Taking the metaphor of The Underground Railroad to mean so much more than just a series of safe houses runaway slaves might use for shelter. In the book, set in the first half of the nineteenth century, there really is a secret underground railway. There are engineers and conductors, each with their own reasons for taking the risk on behalf of the slaves. It is a bright and inventive take on one of the darkest times in history.

I found it scary that even within a few hundred pages I could start to become anaesthetised to the horrors of slavery and the casual murder enjoyed in some of the southern states particularly. The author doesn’t push any parallel with the racism of today, but as a reader, these were never far from my mind. In fact, Whitehead delves further back into history to highlight the massacre of Native Americans rather than labour any contemporary (or indeed populist) narrative. I keep saying it, this book is terrific in ways I’d never thought of.

It is so powerful, honestly. So powerful without seemingly trying to be. The main character Cora finds herself anew in each of the states into which the railroad deposits her. She has followed her mother’s footsteps (or so she thinks, but no plot spoilers). The narrative seems to gather poignancy as the book draws to a close with some breathtakingly, heart breaking moments of realisation.

Cora’s escape from the plantation in the deepest south is far from smooth and throughout the book, literally from start to finish, she suffers unimaginable pain and loss. She really is our hero, and her strength is solid. I could not fail to be inspired to look for everything positive in my own life by her seemingly natural ability to push on.

Colson Whitehead graphically portrays each state’s methods of dealing with “the negro problem” and doesn’t hold back with the horrific imagery. Yes, it is a bruising read, but somehow sublime in its telling. I lost count of the number of times I said to Nicky (my gorgeous wife and fellow member of our two person book club), “I bloody love this book”!

I am left enriched and moved and felt I’d travelled an uncomfortable and torrid journey from Africa, through the deep south into the faintest of promised lands further north.

As I write this in April 2021, I can’t help but think we’ve gone backwards, as a (human) race, in so many ways. I hope that if the time came to be counted, I would be brave enough to become a conductor on The Underground Railroad. This will never be my history. I am in the utterly privileged position to say that. BUT, I feel even more privileged to have Colson Whitehead show me THIS history.

Remarkable.