I realised that most of the paths that lay before me would, in my lifetime, remain untrodden.
I’ve started to read Peter Ackroyd’s enormous biography of London. The scope of the book is fitting for a city which amazes and beguiles each time I visit. I don’t go to London enough. Each time I do I promise to return sooner, for longer, and for the purpose of simply wandering aimlessly through its highways and byways, through its parks and its squares.
We went in summer. One memorable evening, while everyone was busy showering away the dust from a hot afternoon, I ran down from the hotel towards the Thames through Richmond. The pavements were full of people walking to wherever they needed to be. More interesting still were those tiny moments of sadness that I felt as I realised that most of the paths that lay before me would, in my lifetime, remain untrodden. I would never be able to walk or run them all, however interesting they might seem. Even then, with no real rush to get back, I could only cover a tiny fraction of the ground I found to each side of me. There should be a word for it: the sadness that accompanies the knowledge that we can only glimpse a fraction of what we pass through.
That sounds too glum. It isn’t meant to be. As I ran on, cautious to retrace my steps carefully, I was also happy about the fact that I too was going back to where I needed to be. I too had somewhere to go. My family would be there: laid out, post-shower, feeling that glow of exhaustion that follows a day well-spent walking, drinking coffee, watching the world go by with no particular aim. To them my thoughts returned as behind me the Thames silently wound its way through London.
The landscape itself is almost always inconsequential and I often struggle to recall where I’ve been.
I’ve just read Footnotes by Vybarr Cregan-Reid. It’s a wonderful book about running, about why we run, about who we are when we run, and about the landscapes that we run through. It’s an adventurous book too as it ranges over diverse topics and unusual running related texts. Perhaps it is fitting that there is a real sense of exploration which runs like a rich seam through the narrative of a man moving his feet in an attempt to understand both himself and the world around him. Highly recommended.
Not surprisingly Footnotes references Thomas Hardy, specifically Tess of the D’Urbervilles. As Cregan-Reid roams the landscape he thinks back to Hardy wandering the countryside; the poet at large. It prompted me to reread the novel too. It’s not quite as I remembered it, although as Footnotes points out, things never are as we remember them once we move through them and look back.
I don’t really run for the landscapes though. For me, each footstep has the potential to change our lives if we approach each run, or each book, with an open mind. That is the point of running and that is more than enough. The landscape itself is almost always inconsequential and I often struggle to recall where I’ve been. I’ve run on Dorset’s Jurassic coastal paths, and through New York’s Central Park. I’ve been lost in Greece and I once nearly passed out trying to run in the Caribbean. I remember little about those runs. For me, running is symbolic. Where I run doesn’t matter as much to me as it might to Cregan-Reid. And that’s fine for both of us. As Hardy notes in Tess, “Beauty lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolized.”