Monday, July 2, 2007
Straying from the righteous path
Although it's fashionable to blame your parents for everything from adult bed-wetting and rubber fetishes, to being locked out of the housing market and for there being no fresh mangoes at Waitrose - I am sitting here eating Indian sweets wondering if I can blame mine for the grande interruptus of my fitness journey.

I mean - how selfish of them - they locked themselves for two days in the fetid, pressurized cabin of an aircraft, enjoying the delights of the 'chicken option' meals, and an entertainment system that was down between Hong Kong and Heathrow - just so they could wreck my mojo.

They have insisted on restaurants and red wine and 'family time' (I haven't seen them for a year) rather than the deeply solitary activity that is the gym and semi-starvation.

They have reintroduced coffee into my house. Dad brought a bottle of wine home. The other day at Hampton Court Palace, they brought me a scone. They look me to an Italian restaurant on Saturday evening and discussed pizza in an unhysterical manner.

Yet I cannot resist their wicked ways because they are my parents, and as we all know if you go against your parents you get whacked on the backside with either:

a) a wooden spoon
b) a Mason Pearson hairbrush
c) a rolled up newspaper

I guess what I am trying to say is, that after the masochism of the detox, I have now slipped back into my bad old ways - but IT IS NOT MY FAULT. IT IS THEIRS.

Fortunately, my parents are not slipper-wearing, sherry imbibing, wizened OAPs on Zimmer frames. In fact they are probably fitter than I am. So this week when we go walking in the Lake District it could be a chance to regain some fitness ground lost in the past week.

But I'll let you know if they try to drag me from the path of righteousness.

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Monday, June 11, 2007
Walking in the country
Maybe I would enjoy exercise more if it combined one of my favourite activities – going to the pub with friends.

The Evil Gym doesn’t have a bar – it does however have a couch where you can have umlimited top-ups of fizzy drinks and read the Daily Mail. Errr - no thanks.

A search of other gyms in the area also failed to yield a bar or at the very least a comfortable environment where I could entertain my friends whilst continuing with my fitness challenge.

The only thing for it was to get out of town and exercise in the open air (so I wear a hat - see above).

On the weekend we drove out of the city in my friend’s convertible. It was fun. I sat in the backseat wearing a puffa jacket backwards and shouting “What? What did you just say?”

The sat nav didn’t work, meaning we spent most the day in a very unlovely part of London where it would not be out of the question if I was stabbed. I compiled the reasons why I may be stabbed: I looked like a wan**er, I was in a Saab convertible, I had lost control of the broadsheets I was nursing and the books’ pages were flying into the cars behind me (“Give me back my Delillo review!” I shouted to a white van man) , we were listening to folk music – and even worse - singing along, I was wearing a puffa jacket backwards, we were going to the country for a walk. I had turned into my parents. Stab me! Stab me now.

But we made it down to Kent unstabbed. We went to the pub first. It was a ye olde find – made for English midgets about 400 years ago. I had a warm beer and a steak and ale pie with gravy. My pals had the same. We passed a happy hour in silence – reading our mangled newspapers and inhaling our pies.

Now for the exercise bit. We had a book of walks. We appointed a navigator. We appointed someone to carry the backpack. I carried a small stick and a mini pinecone.

The walk was 10 miles and it was stunning. It was like being on the treadmill in the Evil Gym but instead there was fresh air, and my friends, and conversations and some really interesting things to look at. Instead of looking at video clips of Beyonce or Britney gyrating on the borders of porn we saw the following things on the walk:
- birds of prey circling a field
- a steam train with a whistle that sounded like a hiss
- trainspotters at intervals along the tracks, some wearing fluorescent vests, others in corduroy
- a sewerage treatment plant
- a red fox with a glistening, healthy coat and its almost Britney-like come-thither stare
- rabbits the same colour as dry grass
- a man walking through the woods in a tuxedo who stopped and said Hello
- a man on a blue plough who didn’t
- half a dozen chicks in the darkened hollow of a tree – their eyes bright in the dark, their mouths huge and chirps that sounded hungry
- a woman playing a harp in an inn we passed along the way
- a large snail without its shell
- a massive bumblebee

It was lovely. What a civilized way to exercise, I thought. Maybe it’s the surprises in nature that makes it feel so not like a chore.

On the way back to the city I thought of the gym I could open for city people who can’t get to the country for walks. I would set them up on a treadmill next to their friends, after everyone had eaten pies and drunk a beer. I would make sure it was only dear friends – not someone you only half-like. I would dapple the lighting to make it look like sunlight coming though the canopy of trees.

Then I would throw things at the treadmill – things that would delight the walkers: a porcupine, a child’s pony, a flower-girl on her way to a wedding, a tuba player, a friendly squirrel, some blujays, bunches of wild flowers and an ancient stag.

And the people on the treadmill would walk for hours and hours hardly aware they were exercising and exclaim to their friends at all the amazing things they had seen.

They would step off the treadmill and go into a room where the ceilings are low and the fires are lit and there is a cheery barman with rosy cheeks – and drinks are drunk, before puffas are put on backwards and everyone goes home and lives happily ever after.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007
What you see walking to work
Walking to work: is there a more lovely start to the day?

It follows the sweet fog of yawning after a deep sleep, of lying there puzzled at the evening’s dreams. A white swan washed up on a beach and speaking in verse, running to catch some feathers that have escaped from my purse, being chased by a long ago primary school foe, and then the cliff… the cliff, the cliff.

There is a lukewarm shower, the almost sensual appeal of the underfloor bathroom heating on drowsy feet. There is musings of what to wear and retrieving the clothes from the floor. There is the small ache of regret that I had not loved them enough to hang them the night before. There is the day’s first coffee: sweet and strong, rousing my nervous system, straightening my spine. I turn off the radio. I brush my hair and get ready to set off for work a pied.

Springtime in London is perfect walking time and the morning is an ideal time for a stroll. The day’s troubles are still light on my shoulders – if I apprehend troubles at all.

Walking into work seems like a civilised way to meet the day – to walk into its brightness or its rain and shadows and say ‘Hello, I hope things go well for us today.’

My walk to work takes me from Bloomsbury to Soho. It is a walk in two acts- from some of London’s loveliest squares, bookstores and the British Museum (pictured above), through to the back streets of Soho and the sex district of Little Amsterdam, before arriving at CNN. In forty minutes there is so much life teeming in the squares and on the streets that four novels could be plotted all before 11 am.

The First Act: parklife, gentile old Bloomsbury, ever-green squares, tourists with wheelie suitcases, men with museum faces, school children in red uniforms walking in pairs, stretched and moving along the street like a bloody river.

In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the narrator, a Bloomsbury native, now in a correspondent in pre-war Saigon, says, “I thought I was tied to what was left of a Bloomsbury square and the 73 bus passing the portico of Euston and springtime in the local in Torrington Place. Now the bulbs would be out in the square garden and I didn’t care a damn.”

But I am still new enough in this part of the world to be agape at the wonder of it all and “care a damn” about the flowering bulbs.

First square I walk through is Tavistock Square opposite the British Medical Association. The mood of this square is almost always quiet, reverent even.

People sit alone on benches, some reading, some smoking and taking in the morning’s newspapers, but many just sitting, eyes fixed above the shady plane trees, lips persed in silent communion with the conversations playing out within.

On the unoccupied benches, I stoop to read the dedications hammered into silver plaques. “For Martin who loved music and London: 1954 – 1987," "For our darling daughter, who lived in New York, loved London and worked all her life for peace.”

The next square on my walk, that Greene sometimes referred to in his novels as Bloomsbury Square is Russell Square.

It has none of the melancholy that tinges Tavistock Square- instead everyone who passes through it seems to be grinning like a loon.

There is a cool Rasta type dude that works in the square doing the garden including the almost hyper-real beds of tulips. He talks to everyone. There are little dogs off leads and children on leads, and squirrels that are unafraid of people and a sprawling café in the shade.

Even in deepest winter, it is a happy square. The first time I saw snow in London was walking through this square. It flew like ash through the air, and still people walked through the square with those huge grins plastered across their faces, the ash melting into their clothes.

Cross the road and there’s the British Museum. Each day outside its gates, someone asks me where the British Museum is.

Then along past the book shops, where I linger outside the London Review of Books bookshop and dream about all the books that I will read when I retire.

Usually around this time a man with baggy yellow trousers and dreadlocks passes on the other side of the road. He has a loping stride. I see him everyday – always at the same place, crossing at the same point in the road. We don’t say hello. I guess his name to be Leon and suspect he is a Hari Krishna who works the graveyard shift at community radio station. He always looks tired.

The Second Act: ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there,’ and so it is with Soho. It’s another country within London. And I love it.

Poised at Cambridge Circus outside the giant signs for Spamalot, I take a deep breath and brush the Bloomsbury blossoms from my hair and enter the grime zone.

There are men unloading dead chickens from crates, cleaners smoking in the streets, their industrial vacuum cleaners sprawled, spent and exhausted on the footpath.

I step over dried out puddles of sick, before taking a detour to Bar Italia for a coffee and a look at the Sun. On the outdoor tables are men with creative hair and women who got dressed in the dark and don’t give a damn.

Then its along an alleyway, up the proverbial arse of Little Amsterdam. This morning on the small shelf of cobblestones, Japanese tourists took each others photos in front of a sex shop while a man dressed in black rubber, his arms covered in tattoos and half his black hair missing from the left side of his scalp, is sweeping the dust from his shop and whistling. The sun is out.

Some times at 9am furtive looking men come and go from these shops, that sell DVDs, whips, poppers and SEX - but they never look as furtive as you imagine they would be.

Just before the fruit market there is always one menacing man or another speaking to a friend or into a phone about how he “wants to bash Harry. That dirty, filty, c***!” Each day by the fruit carts it appears to be a different man threatening to harm Harry or Barry or Larry. I shrug and buy blueberries.

And so the day starts. A bit of exercise, a bit of high-brow, a dash of low brow. Thinkers and children and dogs and squirrels and dominatrixes and hitmen and fruit-sellers and porn addicts and American tourists with squeaky wheeled cases and bicycles couriers and cleaners and me – walking through it all on my way to work.

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Welcome to the diary of a reluctant exerciser. Having previously shunned fitness regimes in favour of bacon sandwiches, Brigid Delaney vows to finally shape up, get fit and eat more healthily. Over the next three months read how she gets on in a brave new world of gyms, exercise classes and no bacon sandwiches.
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