We are not health religionists in this column. We don’t warn against excessive consumption of all the good things in life – such as Giuseppe Rinaldi 2010 Brunate Nebbiolo, or Ribena – because we know that life itself, to be pleasurable, must be excessively consumed.
And we don’t celebrate austere athletic prowess, as when another pared-down British cyclist in a lycra onesie pedals to a victory that will lead only to more aggressive, foul-mouthed bikers running red lights and mounting pavements. (I don’t, notice, say that all cyclists fit that description; only that those who do – and they are recognisable by how much higher in their saddles they ride – are more to be feared whenever a Wiggins or a Froome notches up a win.)
Notwithstanding our principled bodily scepticism, however, we have just employed the part-time services of a personal trainer. I say “we” because there are others in my house he is employed to service. And I say “trainer”, though when he gets to me he is not so much a personal trainer as a personal stretcher. You don’t have to be in pursuit of a body beautiful to wish yourself to be the flexuously willowy creature you once were or, failing that, just to be able to pick up something you have dropped.
Seeing me stoop to retrieve a pound coin on a bus the other day, three people got up to offer me their seats. Two of them were women. The third was a good decade older than me and had a wooden leg. And please don’t tell me he didn’t. I know he didn’t. But now that I have a personal stretcher I might as well let absurdity have its way with me entirely.
I once belonged to a health club, where it cost me £2,000 a year to amble on a treadmill for half an hour a week and sit and read Grazia in the cooling-off area. So this is not the first time I have been struck by the irony of paying good money to do something I don’t want to do, and I moved heaven and earth to be saved from doing when I was a schoolboy.
For the whole time I was at grammar school I carried around in my back pocket an assortment of notes from my mother requesting that I be excused from PE, cross-country running, football, cricket and swimming on the grounds that I was bilious, hypersensitive, agoraphobic, vertiginous, allergic to the natural hemp from which gym ropes were manufactured, easily nauseated and afraid of water. “All these are just excuses for being a pansy,” the PE teacher told me. “They’re not excuses, sir. They’re a description,” I corrected him – for which he made me hang upside down from the wall-bars for an hour. Thereafter, my mother added constitutionally pusillanimous to the list. “That means being a pansy, sir,” I explained to the PE teacher who hung me from the walls bars again, despite the biblical injunction against the brains ever being positioned lower than the feet.
Looking back, I realise it wasn’t only gym I dreaded at school. Every class was a torment. It wasn’t knowledge I objected to but instruction. Why couldn’t they just tell us what books to read and leave us to get on and read them? I wasn’t a rebel. I just found it impossible to listen when I was trying to think, and craved sovereignty over my imagination. You would have thought, in that case, that PE was just the ticket; I could hang upside down from the wall bars and think my own thoughts till the hour was up. The trouble was, the only thoughts I had were about killing the PE teacher.
On top of which, the gym was a locus of the unambiguous. It was regimented and militaristic. It aspired, necessarily, to the unequivocal. You cannot exercise and be amused about it. You cannot integrate the dying bug into your core workout and hold to the position that you are a spiritual being. In this way the body and the mind are each other’s opposite unto death, which is why you have to choose which of them you are going to follow. The great Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima had a passion for body-building as well as literature and even posed for publicity photographs in a ceremonial fundoshi. But in the end, unable to reconcile the irreconcilable, he put a sword through the bodily part of himself.
Confined to a racetrack or velodrome, the single-minded athlete is a curse only to himself. In these cathedrals of mirthlessness, he can conjoin with his co-religionists in celebration of the body ugly with no detriment to the rest of us. It’s on our roads and pavements that he spreads confusion and violence, and to our parks that he brings disharmony.
A city park is a wonderful place to practise the ironic life. At once metropolis and country, neither wholly natural nor wholly artificial, home to the sedate swan and the preposterous pelican, a place of new growth that speaks urgently of death, a city park enables us to rejoice in those contrarieties that prevent us turning fanatical or tedious. But none is safe from such events as the Prudential Bike Ride, which this weekend will make a hell of central London with its “bike-based entertainment and festival zones” for which read roads you can’t cross, officious men in yellow bibs, slavishly applauding groupies, unironic X Factor ballads piped through giant speakers, and parks you can’t enjoy. (Yes, yes, and incidental charitable intentions, but I don’t deny that good can sometimes come from evil.)
Otherwise it’s runners, numbered and logo’d, pounding the paths, fracturing the ambiguous quiet of city nature and frightening the already existentially bemused ducks with the ticking of their Fitbits and the zombie zedding of their headphones. Fortunately, my personal stretcher is not closed to comedy. I might not be laughing when I do the dying bug, but he is. So while he will never make an athlete of me, there is a chance I will make a philosopher of him.Reuse content