December, 2015

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Norway, Nazis and a novel

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.

Hamsun Hunger

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.

Ibsen sweater

Injury strikes…

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:

InfluenceConcern 1

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:

InfluenceConcern 2

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!

What to do?

You might have noticed that, as well as thoughts on running and writing, I also write here about random things that interest me or that concern me. I think I’m probably meant to stick to one subject for a blog, but I already know that I would get bored very quickly if I limited myself in that way. I think that was somewhere between an apology and an explanation for the randomness.

So what’s bothering me this week? Democracy, really. Or how on earth you can have either meaningful engagement in the political process. Or accountability of politicians. You might remember Winston Churchill’s observation on forms of government, which should really be slightly longer than the more commonly seen soundbite:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

I liked the bit about “this world of sin and woe.” I’m trying to think of a current politician who might say that.

Leaving aside the question of whether things would be better if everyone agreed that having me as a benign dictator would be preferable (history suggests not), I’ve been asking myself what my role in the current system should be. I have voted in every election since I was eighteen, for a range of individuals who happened to be members of different political parties. Maybe that makes me a floating voter. At the last general election, I read every manifesto of the main parties. One of them was even well written. The rest were somewhere on a spectrum of dreadfulness. How many meaningless soundbites can you string together to create what is, technically, a sentence? A lot, it turns out. But understanding what the high level policies will mean in practice seems to be a task which eludes most of us, me included. But we have to decide what we believe would be best and put our cross in the box. So I did that.

And I was pretty unhappy about this process. What do you do when the person whose policies you most agree with/least disagree with has no chance of winning and you cannot in good conscience vote for any (either) of the parties who could win in your constituency?

I got annoyed. I had in my entire life only once written properly to my MP when the government decided to cut the tariffs for renewable energy generation with very little notice. In the end, the government lost that one in court. Not that my MP was interested. That was a good few years ago, but then two things happened and I went from annoyed to angry because they were both issues of principle and then my moral compass jabs me in the ribs and I know I can’t leave it be. One was the Assisted Dying Bill which I blogged about at the time, where my MP seems not to have understood either the question he was being asked to vote on or the parliamentary process involved. I’m still trying to engage him on this. I might return to it here in the future. But I think the other example is worthy of more comment.

In October, you might remember the visit by China’s president to the UK. China is not known as an example of democracy. But what really troubled me was the way in which one protester in particular was treated in London. Let’s just rewind a few years though, because the context matters here.

The Tiananmen Square massacre is something that those of us around at the time can never forget and the image of one man standing in front of a tank has been used ever since as a symbol of protest. Shao Jiang survived that protest (and you might remember that even mention of it is banned on the censored version of the internet available in China). He spent months in prison in China for his role in the associated opposition movement. Since then, he has been a prominent campaigner for democracy in China. When the Chinese president visited London, Dr Jiang ran into the road where the motorcade was to come and held up two placards. One said “Democracy now,” the other “End autocracy” in both English and Chinese. For doing this, he was arrested. The legislation he was arrested under is targeted at two or more people acting together to cause “harassment, alarm or distress.” Right. The president of China was harassed, alarmed or distressed by this?

It gets better. His laptop and phone were taken by the police when his home was searched (“raided” is the slightly more emotive word for that.) And he was banned from being in a few places, including within 100 metres of Xi Jingping. The reason for that was “to prevent further offences and to prevent further harassment of the victim.” Wait. When did Xi Jingping become a victim in all of this?

As well as concern about this specific case, I also realised that I couldn’t say why I wouldn’t be arrested and have my home raided and my belongings taken if I went to, for example, another climate march. For all I know, a visiting politician might feel harassed. Do I think that likely? No. But if you can be arrested in London for being, at worst, a nuisance to a politician we are supposed to be being nice to, and a member of the cabinet doesn’t feel he can express a view, is that the end of the right to peaceful protest? Where do any of us stand now?

March

Ready to be arrested and have your home raided?

Oh, and I also wrote to David Cameron. Summary of responses:

MP (highlights are mine):

The operational policing of protests and the use of police powers are entirely matters for Chief Constables in the United Kingdom, and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time on specific individual cases.  Similarly, the system of policing complaints in this country is an independent one, to ensure that officers and staff are answerable to the public.

I am a strong believer in the peaceful right to protest and as I have said, the right to protest peacefully is guaranteed under UK law, but protesters’ rights need to be balanced with the right of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community. Rights to peaceful protest do not extend to violent, threatening behaviour, and the police have the powers to deal with such acts.

So – (1) no comment – fortunately other MPs have expressed their view in public, (2) violent, threatening behaviour is not acceptable (guess what, I agree – what it has to do with this case escapes me).

Civil Servant (I didn’t expect to get an answer from the prime minister – for transparency, I will include the full reply on this one at the end as I’m including only two lines here. It’s also almost amusing to see how it takes five paragraphs to say nothing about what I wrote about):

Decisions on arrests are an operational matter for the police.

Protestors’ rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community.

Wait – didn’t I just read that? Oh yes, that must be the standard explanation being given then – word for word in the second part.

I’ve written back to my MP. No reply after a month. Starting to feel like I’m talking to myself. That’s normally reserved for long runs.

There is, in my view, something seriously wrong here. I am, however, pleased that Dr Jiang has now complained to the independent IPCC about the way the police behaved in this case. And optimistic that the important questions which it raised will be dealt with properly.

So I’m left with one unanswered question – what do I do when I think something is badly amiss and when genuine questions are met with non-answers? Stand for election myself? I can’t imagine anything worse. But if everyone said that, where would we be left? (Don’t say “where we are now,” that’s not helpful!).

There is one thing I can do. I will engage in another “first” for me and go and see my MP at his next surgery. Of course they are all during working hours so that will have to be holiday time. But I cannot accept that not replying to a constituent gets an MP out of engaging on an issue.

Democracy. Loving it. Need to fix it. This might take some time.

 

 

 

 

And here is the full reply from the Home Office on my Shao Jiang question – which in my opinion does not even touch on the question:

Thank you for your email of 24 October to the Prime Minister regarding your concerns.  As I hope you will appreciate, the Prime Minister receives a large amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each piece individually.  Your email has therefore been forwarded to the Direct Communications Unit at the Home Office and I have been asked to reply. 

Peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society.  It is a long-standing tradition in this country that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views, however uncomfortable these may be to the majority of us, provided that they do so within the law.

There is, of course, a balance to be struck.  Protestors’ rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community.  

The law has to balance the need for the police to have powers to prevent and deal with disorder at demonstrations, with democratic rights to peaceful protest.  This includes rights to express views that are within the law but which we may find uncomfortable or distasteful.  However, if individuals cross the boundary into criminal acts including public order offences, the police will take action.

Decisions on arrests are an operational matter for the police, in line with their duties to keep the peace, to protect communities, and to prevent the commission of offences, working within the provisions of the legal framework set by Parliament.

I hope you find this reply helpful.

The sandals blog

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.

IMG_3036

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:

IMG_3037

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:

IMG_3038

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:

IMG_3080 IMG_3081

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…

IMG_3039

So whatever the conditions, I have the sandals for them. And I am so done with needing any more for a very long time!