I can’t find my notes. I’ve moved my office space around twice since the time I had them. I flick through dozens of aborted moleskin journals, the first half a dozen pages of each filled with urgent, unravelling scrawl, and … Continue reading
I was in one of the most westerly places on the mainland. That made me one of the last people in Britain – one of the last who were watching, waiting for it, that is – to see the sun rise on Saturday.
Before it rose, it made the hills glow. Two hills, that folded over each other the way that picturesque hills do. The sun, if it had been equally acquiescent to the picturesque ideal, would have risen between them, straight up out of the hillside’s crease. One hill, however, was glowing a little brighter than the other.
It was quiet as I peered out of the front door of Johny’s caravan. A flock of seagulls took off towards the sea as I did so, startled, soundless. Their silent kinesis, conducted at roof height, seemed eerily out of character as if Something had Happened. The air had been left cold by the night, and its chill made its way down my neck. I tucked my chin into my anorak. It felt like I’d opened the door onto a vacuum that the sunrise was shortly about to burst.
The birds’ bellies and under-wings were half-lit by a sunrise that hadn’t yet reached me. From the birds I traced my gaze to the top of the nearest house. Then to its satellite dish. Then to the parked van, and to the odd rugby goalpost on a nearby patch of land that was presumably someone’s garden. I leant against the doorframe and willed myself to fall into a wonder about how it was that I was there. How incredible, barely believable it was that I had indeed been brave and left the South East. Here I was, in one of the wildest parts of Cornwall, leaning against a door frame, staring up at birds. Twenty seven years old, hundreds of miles away from everything that formed me, hundreds of miles away from old friends, old familiar places, and being able to see the sun rise on an ordinary Saturday October morning in Sennen.
It didn’t work.
I tried again. I was after the dizziness you get after being hit by the momentum of the present. I think that some people call it ‘experiencing the Sublime’. I wanted to feel it. But it didn’t come.
This time, surely.
Come on now, look at this stuff. Marvel.
I wanted to feel something right here, here at the base of my throat.
Then the sun rose, heaving itself up over the right hill like I thought it would.
I went to work.
After Saturday, I thought about London, where I worked between 2006 and 2011. I thought about it more than I usually do. I usually think about the city in terms of its roads – its ‘outsides’, rather than thinking about the city as a collection of insides, rooms upon rooms upon rooms. I’ve never been good with road names, and I’ve certainly forgotten most of the names of the roads that haunt my daydreams and sometimes penetrate my sleep. But back in 2010, when I lived in Dalston, N1, I used to know them. I took up running as a serious pastime and ran around Islington, Highbury, Newington Green, up towards Finsbury Park. I would look at the road signs, note the postcode in the bottom right hand corner. Sometimes, I would run to Finsbury Park, run around it, then stop and look out at the city. The straight roads, the small family-owned shops and family-owned restaurants, the flats above them, housing Londoners like me. I imagined the insides to mirror the outsides: dirty and almost certainly decrepit. I wanted to see these insides. I believed they would be beautiful.
I had taken to running as a means of escaping how the city made me feel. Caged. Separated from nature. Lonely. Mis-fitting. I used to race through those streets to try and feel alive. Today, I keep catching myself accessing that memory, of me running and stopping in Finsbury Park. There were raggedy billboard posters, neon pink and orange-yellow, advertising a circus. A group of men played football in the encroaching darkness, for it was winter, and the sun set by half four. The path was hard, small sandy pieces of grit under my trainers. The street – Finsbury Park Road, it might have been – was glazed in soot and grime. The land rose up on its hind legs and I felt the weight of North London bear down upon that place. The city’s hard upper crust of boroughs and sub boroughs. The choke of Holloway, Archway, Enfield. The layers and layers of urban-suburban-sub suburban space, stuffed with life, the release road of the M1 a gullet down which cars crammed and were squeezed along on their journeys by the muscles of the city. There, deep in the urban underlayer, the traffic was relentless. The buses went past, and past, and past. I remembered my sex; I felt unsafe. I looked at the flats above the family-owned shops and restaurants and I longed to be somewhere else.
But where, I no longer know. All that remains of that day is simply the memory of being where I didn’t want to be.
I think of Finsbury Park now and I let nostalgia make the base of my throat tickle with ache.
I figured that a good place to start might be with something prewritten.
I wrote the below for a writing workshop, about 3 months ago.
When I want to be alone, I go running before anyone else wakes up. I put on shorts and a T shirt, tie up my trainers. I strap on my watch, flicking my wrist first out, then in, letting the catch find its familiar hole in the watchstrap. Then I think twice and take it off, leaving it on my desk. I peel the house key off my main set of keys, pad downstairs on the parts of stairs that don’t creak, and open the front door, taking care not to slam it shut behind me. Wherever I’ve lived over the past few years – be it in Hertford, where I used to run through the fields of a private estate, or in Dalston, where the care taken over door-slamming was unnecessary, seeing as the constant Zone 2 roar made the walls of our flat vibrate – the ritual was, and continues to be, the same.
For the solitude to work, you have to get out as early as you can. In winter, I run down streets in complete darkness, running from memory of my surroundings in the light, waiting for the sunrise to catch up. In summer, I run with the tail end of the dawn chorus, the chill on my arms torched off by the strength of morning sun. I jog slowly and stiffly at first, breaking in my ankles, which respond like the spine of a book being flexed open for the first time. Then I run as fast as I want, letting the mechanical movements take over.
It’s the mechanics that detune the wavelengths of my brain, like a fingertip rolling itself across a radio dial. My head slowly fills with a white noise, over which only my heart, my breath, and my nervous system can make themselves heard. I focus on emptying and filling my lungs. I feel the shock of the ground through my ankles and knees and resist interpreting it, or deriving from it a train of thought. It can work for about forty minutes. After this time, the reason for my search for solitude finds a way to tune in, and people start to appear, going about their morning routines.
Last year, during the worst period of my job, I had to sack scores of people. I would run away from my laptop, my mobile phone, and my responsibility to everyone, as often as I could. Sometimes I couldn’t wait for the following morning. ‘I’m going out,’ I’d tell people I worked with over the phone, on days that the rest of the world recognized as weekends. ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back.’ I used to run like I was being chased, avoiding the main thoroughfares. When I lived in Stevenage, I had a loop of seldom-used subways that I ran through, smacking my palm against the wall of each as I passed. It was not how I normally conducted myself, but the aggressive connection with something solid helped me to re-calibrate something inside.
Once, while working overnight in London, I got up at 5am and ran out of my hotel towards Blackfriars Bridge, overtaking late night partygoers sobering up in the dawn. I finally ended up down Oxford Street, a road never normally accessible for a brisk walk, let alone a run. The street cleaners were out, their machines sucking up junk from the gutters, but I was still alone: they didn’t take any notice of me as I darted around their one-man vehicles, with wide circular brushes that fed the machine’s jaws with rubbish, a fish feeding on plankton.
This year, now I live in Cornwall, I try to get myself lost if I need the solitude. Yesterday I followed a footpath I’d never noticed before. It slowly petered out into thick grass and uneven ground in the middle of a field. I ran bewildered, the dew juicing in my trainers, unsure where to run without a path to follow. My watch had been left on my desk: I had no idea how long I’d been running for. I didn’t know whether I was trespassing, and I wished I’d taken my phone with me.
I stood in the centre of that field for several minutes, panting, eyes searching for an exit. It took an age to pick out the fence in the distance, over which I would then climb, snagging my shorts on its rusted barbwire.