Books: Marathon woman kicks up a storm

Laura Thompson wants a brave runner to slow down; Long Distance Information by Julie Welch Macmillan, pounds 12.99, 307pp
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The Independent Culture
THIS IS a likeable book, with a determinedly amiable style, but it has occasional fits of temper. Autobiography tends to recollect emotion in tranquillity. This one screams and shouts and rolls up its sleeves to display old wounds, which gives it a compelling, if slightly bonkers, readability.

Julie Welch - a highly-respected sports journalist - was, in 1997, gracelessly dumped from The Sunday Telegraph. Over and over, she writes of her hurt and anger. It is as if, every time she thinks about it, the blood rushes to her head and thence to her pen. Stylistically, this is hardly Voltaire; but the bravery and immediacy are gripping. Welch carries the reader along with a direct and almost gauche honesty.

The structure of the book interleaves past with present. "Past" is Welch's upbringing in well-heeled Epping, her education at "a boarding school for country Sloane Rangers," her early years in sports journalism. This is vivid stuff, brought to life by descriptions like that of her remote, kindly, definitively masculine father: "this navy suited, maroon-tied, apple-checked God". Welch implies that much of her fascination with sport derived from her relationship with this man.

"Present" is the story of Welch's addiction to physical challenge: running, in particular. This, the reader is told, created the catharsis which has enabled her to confront her past: "I ran beyond pain and tiredness to the state where I felt I could go on running for ever". The descriptions of distance running are, again, honest ("mile-upon-mile of bleak moorland... strafed by crosswinds and dotted with sheep whose coats were iced solid") but the idea that it helps Welch to confront her demons feels forced at times. The reader never doubts Welch's sincerity, but remains unconvinced by the injection of "significance".

Long Distance Information has all of a good conversation's verve, and far less of a good book's control. It is punctuated with phrases like "I'm not boring you, am I?", as if Welch fears losing her reader's attention and affection. She does not; nor would she have done, had there been more of those passages such as when she returns to her beloved Spurs and finds it succumbing to modernisation: "The gates were still there, tall, black, iron ones that used to send shivers down the spine. They just weren't in scale any more." For a long moment - the best moment - the compulsive runner seems to be sitting still.