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BBC Radio 4 can be a source of surprising finds. Or maybe I just know very little – the more I listen to Radio 4, the more I think that is a reasonable conclusion. I “discovered” Brandi Carlile via some programme that was on as I passed through the kitchen and heard one song that I then had bought a nanosecond later. That happens very rarely. Not only because our broadband is sooooo slow that nothing happens online in a nanosecond, but I also rarely hear a song and fall in love with it immediately. The Story was a happy exception.
And then I had the radio on while I was emptying the dishwasher and there was a book programme on, one which I initially thought had completely escaped my attention until then, although it did later dawn on me that I did already know of its existence. I was tuning in and out (no pun intended but sorry anyway) as I had missed all of the context, who was speaking and what they were speaking about. Apart from that, it all made perfect sense. Then they started talking about a Norwegian author who, later in his life, developed strong Nazi sympathies and became a pariah in his own country as a result. But apparently what he wrote was both groundbreaking and very good (they are not always the same in my experience as a reader). And then the programme was over. And I was intrigued and wanted to find out more.
Knut Hamsun was born in Norway in the mid 1800s and went on to write enough to fill what became 27 volumes of novels, short stories, plays and poems. And he won the Nobel prize in literature in 1920. And I had never even heard of him. In fairness, there are a lot of winners of that prize that I have never heard of.
One of the underrated virtues of writers from that long ago is that their books are now available for nothing (legally, to be clear) because they are long since out of copyright. So while you can still buy a physical copy of their work, you can often also read them on an e-reader thanks to Project Gutenberg. So I did just that and got myself a copy of Hunger, which was the book mentioned on the radio programme, albeit not the one for which he won his Nobel prize.
As physically attractive as a hardback the free Kindle version is not…
I was more than a little impressed. It didn’t quite read as something which might have been written this year, but it was much more modern than I had expected, much more unpredictable, and generally maddening in the way the central character behaves. And it focuses more on the psychology of the character rather than the sequence of events. This is not one for plot junkies.
The story is of a man who is hungry. He has no money and is trying to make a living as a writer having had a series of jobs over the years (like Hamsun himself). And when he does manage to earn some money, he constantly gives it away in fits of extreme generosity or stupidity. The story is told in the first person and we never even learn the man’s name, we just live inside his head, with all the random, inconsistent thoughts, intentions and motivations that we all have flying around at the same time. He appears to have periods of what feels like madness along the way and he seems never to learn from any of his previous experiences. He lies, he steals, and he considers himself an honourable man. This approach to writing, apparently, was groundbreaking at the time – when you think of Dickens, you can see that they don’t have much in common in their writing style. And I could see why Kafka found inspiration in Hamsun’s writing – nothing is resolved, loose ends are not tied up, there is a sense of growing frustration with this man who behaves bizarrely throughout. And it was probably the most remarkable book I’ve read in quite a while.
But then we have his politics. He was a prominent supporter of the Nazis during their occupation of Norway. He gave his Nobel Prize medal to Joseph Goebbels, met with Hitler (although that didn’t go so well, apparently, and Hitler was angry for three days afterwards), and even shortly after Hitler’s death, wrote a eulogy to him. You can see why many in Norway regarded him as a traitor.
Does this matter in connection with what he wrote? I think my starting point here is that we can distinguish between the personal views of a writer and what they have written, unless what they write is an expression of those views. So Hitler’s Mein Kampf would be an example of a book which reflects his political viewpoint and which has become inseparable from what those views led to, but there is nothing remotely political in Hamsun’s Hunger. So I am happy to be appalled at Hamsun’s views on Nazism but see those as unrelated to his writing as long as the two are not connected. And of course (other) fiction can be a wonderful vehicle for trying to understand historical facts in a different light, but that’s a topic for another day.
We could ask a similar question about actors. We’re going through a spate of the Waltons right now, lots of family, wisdom, hard work, good honest values and so forth. And then you find out about the actors who played these characters… polar opposites doesn’t even cover it in some cases. Does that matter? Again, I think they are unconnected. On screen, the actors are taking on a role. They might do it well or poorly in our opinion, but their personal lives are just that, personal. There are more than enough writers, actors and many other people I doubt I would want to know personally, but whose work I can appreciate and value.
Where I can see this can all get immediately murkier is if you have been affected by what that writer or actor did in their personal life. If you suffered under Nazi occupation, I doubt you would want to give Hamsun much by way of sympathy or understanding even if you did agree with the principle of separating the man from his writing. It’s a lot easier for those of us with decades of distance who can appreciate his work and acknowledge his very public failings at the same time. And I have already got hold of Growth of the Soil, for which he won his Nobel Prize. Maybe I’m going to have a Scandinavian reading period next, Ibsen is another person whose writing I know nothing about, and who was a contemporary of Hamsun. Just without the political baggage. As far as I know. He certainly seems to be more socially acceptable in Norway as I have a lovely sweater from there which commemorates part of the Peer Gynt drama he wrote including a scene about a “buck ride” that seems to involve a reindeer hunt that went awry. As it’s my favourite sweater, I should probably also read the story behind it at some point! I’m hoping it’s a happy end for the reindeer.
Just last week, I was thinking that it had been over two years since my last running-related injury, and that I was seeing the benefits of having been able to run continuously throughout that period, if not with the same intensity all the time. And then I was trotting along on my weekend long run, reminding myself as I battled against yet another strong headwind that pace is not what matters on those runs, when I had a sharp pain above my right ankle. I stopped, had a play around with my ankle, could feel where the pain was coming from, and decided it was too soon to give up. I’ve had pains come and go before and my made-up rule is to run for another two minutes and just pay attention. Am I moving some part of my body differently? Is there some imbalance I haven’t noticed? And what is the pain doing? In this case, it was coming and going. But after one minute, the coming was winning and the going was…well, going. At this point, I was glad that I had done a mini-loop at the beginning of the run to turn a 12 mile route into a 14 mile one. That meant I was still only a mile and a half from home. And I was walking back.
I’m pretty sure it’s a muscle rather than my Achille’s tendon. But I suspect I’m going to be out of action for a while now. This is not great. By the time I got home (it takes a lot longer to walk than run) I had calmed down from my initial emotional reaction. I was sure I hadn’t done anything I shouldn’t have, like up my mileage or intensity by too much too quickly, and that this was just one of those things that can happen. The only question was what I would do about it now.
I’m a big fan of Stephen Covey’s work. He’s probably best known for his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People which remains a constant source of positive challenge to me when I try to be honest with myself about my own behaviours. The concept he taught which I think I have found most useful and most applicable to life is his circle of influence and circle of concern, and it was to this teaching that I returned on my walk back home today when I had to decide what I was going to do about this sudden change.
The two circles look like this:
Our circle of concern is all the things that concern us (the clue’s in the title). It’s very wide, we accumulate a lot of things that are of interest or concern. At its extreme, it might include world peace and alleviating poverty. The smaller circle in the middle is our circle of influence. It’s what we can do something about. Let me illustrate using my brand new injury.
It is most definitely in my circle of concern. It bothers me, it limits what I can do for a period of time, and it’s annoying.
So what is in my circle of influence? The obvious starting point is whether I let my body heal. If I do, it will get better, if I don’t, it will get worse. I could have carried on and run a few more miles when I first felt the pain, but then I would probably have needed carrying for a few months. I could have stayed firmly in my circle of concern and blamed myself for what had happened, blamed someone else (what, take personal responsibility?), sulked about it for days… the list goes on. Instead, I recognised that something had happened that I could no longer do anything about. The only question was, what now? Because that is my circle of influence.
By the time I got home, I had thought of some of the things I would be able to do if I were out of running-action for a while. Like reading more, going for walks, writing at lunchtime instead of running, going on photography walks… and I found it became a long list, more than I could possibly fit into the extra time I would have at my disposal. And that is the beauty of Covey’s concept of the circle of influence. If you spend you energy on your circle of concern, it just wears you down because you can’t do anything about it. But if you focus on what you can do something about – your circle of influence – it gets bigger. The only way to make any impact on your circle of concern is to focus on your circle of influence, which then gets a bit bigger:
So at the moment, I don’t know if I will be out of action for a week, a month or a year, but I do know that if I concentrate on what I can do rather than what I can’t do, it can end up being a positive experience. Just different from what I had originally planned. But then life is like that, isn’t it? We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we react.
I spent the rest of the day reading, writing and pulled out the Leica ready to take with me when I next see daylight. It turned into a great day. I’m going to make the most of whatever running-free time I have to take for the next while!
Running saved me today. Not for the first time. Sanity has been restored again, although it does always seem to be a temporary solution needing another fix soon enough.
But there were reasons for running happiness today. First, it’s the first day of my training programme for next year’s Edinburgh marathon. So in 25 weeks it will all be over. And taking a down period (admittedly, it’s relative, not absolute) after the last marathon was a good call by my (online) coach. I come down pretty hard after a big race like that, which has something to do with the amount of training that goes into it. I am back to being super-optimistic about my next race, helped by the fact that my paces are currently about where they were just before the last race, and this time it’s at the beginning, not end, of the training cycle. My long run this weekend was so much fun that I decided to do an extra couple of miles at the end. I think it was partly relief at not having to run through driving sleet and snow like the previous weekend.
And then today my new sandals arrived. What? Another pair of sandals? Let me explain. These ones are special (OK, they are all special in their own way, they are like your children, each has their good and… no, I’ll stop this analogy now.)
So what’s with the sandals anyway? It’s probably one of the oldest technologies we have. Strap something to your feet to protect them from the worst of the surfaces you will be running or walking on and away you go. Nowadays, with a bit more finesse perhaps because the materials available to us have improved over the last few thousand years. You might remember that I get all my sandals from Luna Sandals, partly because of the story behind them, but also because they are available in Europe, unlike the other running sandals which are available in the US (don’t say it too loudly, but a lot of them look very similar to each other). A runner colloquially known as Barefoot Ted participated in an ultramarathon race in Mexico with a tribe who live there and spend what even I would regard as a disproportionate amount of time running. They also run either barefoot or in homemade sandals, made from old car or truck tyres. So not exactly natural materials, but what they have to hand. Manuel Luna showed Ted how to make these sandals, and Ted turned this knowledge into a business based in Seattle, where all the sandals are now made.
I’m not going to get into all the reasons for running in something other than the trainers which most people use because I’m really not that bothered what other people do. I just know that I’m always happy when I’m out in my sandals and that’s enough. Plus I do get extra cheers and supports during a race, as well as sympathy from some of the people I’m running with. That in itself is worth a lot.
But let’s face it, the weather can be an issue. But perhaps not in the way you might expect. So here’s the ones I use throughout the year, depending on what’s happening outside.
After a couple of years in running only in sandals, these are my go-to ones – the leather top is super comfy and amazingly effective at dealing with sweaty feet on warm days when I’m running fast. And on most other days. The only thing they are not good at, in fact, is when it is properly wet.
For water, these are the business:
I can run through any amount of water and they will be dry a few minutes later from the combination of the heat from my feet, the circulating air and the pressure of foot on sandal with every step. The straps stay wet for longer, but I don’t even notice that as they’re just keeping the sandal nice and snug. And if you think I enjoy running in sandals generally, you should see me when there’s a puddle or stream I have to go through. Although I confess that I did go around the one that was about twenty metres long and several inches deep at the weekend.
Offload? Just need more grip. Like this:
These are going to come into their own when I finally crack the marathon next year and can move onto something else that’s longer and doesn’t involve quite so much asphalt.
And snow or ice? Meet the new sandals – which go back to the beginning and are made from a car tyre:
As you can see from the tread. They are heavier than my other sandals and I’m expecting these ones to last for a very very long time before I wear through them. Apart from cats taking a like to the straps and ripping sandals to bits, the only time I need to replace a pair of sandals is when I wear them down so there is nothing left in parts of the sole. My theory is that the Michelin car tyres these are made from are good for many thousand miles so, even though there is a difference between a circle rolling very fast on a car and me making contact on the ground 190 times a minute (yes, I know this, I find things to amuse myself with during long runs), I think they will last a lot longer than the other ones. And I like that the straps on these are leather – something new to experience. I’m planning on taking them for a spin this week to see how they feel.
And finally, the ones for wearing all summer long, but for walking in rather than running. Well, I would wear them all summer long if I were allowed to…
So whatever the conditions, I have the sandals for them. And I am so done with needing any more for a very long time!