Read Running with the Pack Online

Authors: Mark Rowlands

Running with the Pack (6 page)

Remembering is effortless in its early days. There is so much room for each new memory, and no design or fashion exigencies to satisfy. But when the house of memory starts to become cluttered, then more and more remembering becomes an act of will, one that is sometimes difficult to execute with any real satisfaction. More and more the coherence — the sense — of a life is not something that is simply given but something that has to be achieved through one or another ad hoc manoeuvre. Memories, I suspect, disappear not because we can't make them any more — and not even because we no longer have room for them. They just become too incongruous, too unlikely. Perhaps, in the end, it will be my utter implausibility that does for me. I shall have become too improbable to be here any more — a hypothesis that can no longer be believed.

And so, from time to time but more and more, my attempts
to remember are characterized by a strange sense of amazement. That these memories should all belong to a single life is a faintly surreal discovery. It strikes me as so extraordinarily unlikely — a fortuitous bonus — that they should all go together, bundled up in a single winding pathway through space and time. Was it really me that saw those things; that did those things? Even worse: I know enough about memory to know that the photograph model is deeply flawed. Memories are not replicas of past events. They are renderings: part replica, part fabrication. A memory is an artifice stitched together by me. I am not just the cameraman, but the editor, and often the CGI man too. According to a well-known philosophical theory, I am my memories. It is my memories that make me the person I am today, a person different from anyone else. But I suspect you will not find me in my memories at all — not in the content of those memories anyway. I am there only in the stitching, the splicing, only in the imagery I generate.

So what should I say of my memories of this day? The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote that the most important memories are the ones that become part of your blood. The blood of memory is not what is remembered but a way or style of remembering and, I suspect, I am to be found less and less in what I remember and more and more in a style of remembering.

Mynydd Maen
— ‘the mountain of stone' — divides the eastern and western valleys of Gwent. It is, in fact, barely a mountain, creeping just a little over 1500 feet. But on a good day you can see all the way to England: Bristol is a twinkle to the south, clinging to the far shore of the Channel. To the north you'll see the Black Mountains, the Sugar Loaf — Pen-y-Fal —
and the Blorenge; and beyond them, if the air is exceptionally clear, the Beacons. They are called the ‘black' mountains, but this name is ironic. Most of the time, they are green, turning brown in autumn when the heather dies. The real black mountains lie before them. When I was a boy, the dark residue of the Industrial Revolution clung to everything. The hills were almost uniformly black, covered, steeped, in coal dust. Indeed, some were hills of coal not earth — mountains of coal slag. These mountains would often catch fire, deep inside them, and these fires could burn for years. There was no way of putting them out. We had family in a town called Nantyglo — ‘the stream of coal' — and one Sunday a month we would drive up the valley to visit them. Climbing over a thousand feet through Blaenavon, on through the tiny coal-stained village of Garn-yr-erw, I would be sitting in the back of the car with my brother. Sheer black hillsides glowered down on either side of us, dark coal smoke billowing slowly from them. The poet Idris Davies once wrote, of mountains very much like these, that he could ‘dream of the beauty lost and the beauty yet to be'. But it never occurred to me that this was unusual, that an artist might use such a scape to portray hell. It never occurred to me that this is what the end of the world might look like.

Mynydd Maen marked the point where the eastern valley opened out into coastal plain. There was little coal here, and so it had been spared the worst excesses of that brutal century. I am standing on, surrounded on all sides by, green mountain grass. To the south-east is Newport, where I was born. To the east is Cwmbran — ‘the valley of the crow', a scabrous new town — where I am growing. The west — you can't see that — not from where I am standing today. The mountain ridge is a broad one. I'd spent quite a bit of time on
this mountain, and I knew the geography of the land to the north and south and east like the back of my hand. But the west was still a mystery to me.

This was a morning alive, wriggling, with possibilities in a way that is true only of the mornings of youth: a fine, powdery dusting of prospects, options, risks and opportunities. It must have been late spring or early summer. That is the best my memory can do in locating this day in time. But I know it was a Saturday, and I remember that school was still in session. So May or perhaps early June would be my best guess. If it had been April, the mountain would still have been frosted white at this time of the morning.

The Saturdays of my childhood were largely filled with the playing of sports. Sometimes these were the formal team sports of my school, mostly rugby and cricket, and if by any chance there was a Saturday where there was nothing formal arranged, my friends and I would fill it with informal pick-up games of soccer. Free Saturdays — Saturdays when there was absolutely, positively nothing arranged — were few and far between, and if one did materialize, the chances were I just wanted to take off on my own. Or not quite on my own — flying out of the door with me this morning, breakfast barely settled in our two stomachs, is Boots, the huge, pale, almost white, Labrador of my childhood. We started walking: down Chapel Lane, past the Bluebell Woods, Boots bouncing along beside me. I decided to start running, a steady jog. I wouldn't say I had been a fat kid, but I was far from svelte — fattish wouldn't be far from the truth. But this last year or two had seen me lengthen, and thin out, dramatically, like a chubby wad of liquorice pulled out into a string. If I had known that was the last of the lengthening I was going to do, I might have cherished it even more.
That's the way life goes sometimes. But on this day I remember our shadows. Boots — a squat ball of muscular energy. I, my profile newly effaced and elongated, projected onto the rooted and stony banks that ran beside us; my newly long hair — a triumph of deposition over my mother's thirteen-year reign of short-back-and-sides terror — bouncing in the sun to the beat of my stride.

I ran, and Boots ran, not for any real reason: you don't need reasons to run when you are a kid or a dog. Then, running is a perfectly reasonable option for transporting yourself from one place to another. You no more need a reason for running than you need one for walking. Indeed, sometimes it is positively uncomfortable not to run. My life was a patchwork of events, occasions and obligations, and running was the thread that held it all together. School was a mile and a half away: I would run there in the morning and run home in the evening. Sometimes I'd make the round trip at lunchtime too. That was already six miles; and it didn't even occur to me to think of it as exercise. After school, three nights a week, was rugby training: two hours spent largely running. Then I'd run home to eat, do my homework and after that the hour of enforced piano practice insisted upon by my mother — a necessary counterbalance to the thuggery of the rest of my life, as she saw it. On Monday nights, when there was no rugby, I would sometimes run down to the boxing club for some training. When I arrived, they would usually send me out on a five-mile run. There would be a school rugby match most Saturday mornings in winter. And in the afternoons, I'd sometimes pick up a game with the youth team, run by the local rugby club. When summer came, things were slightly different. I'd play cricket for the local club instead of rugby for the school. There was less running
involved. But I was a batting all-rounder, so there was still running aplenty, and club cricket took up all the weekend rather than just Saturday.

Things are different now, and the world is a different place. I gather that kids are driven to school, and they play computer games when they get home. I suspect I would have been climbing the walls if I had grown up today — a ‘problem child'. There is a certain type of boy — I can't speak for girls, but I don't immediately see why they should be fundamentally different — who needs to run. And if he doesn't, then life is going to be a painful and confusing place. I was a boy like that.

To reach the top of Mynydd Maen — crowned with a tall radio mast — involved a steep, steep climb, in parts a scramble, of around three miles. When Boots and I arrived there, I was astonished to see my watch telling me that it had taken barely over half an hour. Even now, I think I must have got it wrong. Perhaps we set out earlier than I remembered? But, whatever the truth of the matter, when we arrived there, we just kept running, because it never occurred to us to stop.

The mountain-top was by no stretch of the imagination a treacherous one. There was the occasional sheer drop, and a few bogs sprinkled around. So you had to take care. But I knew this mountain well. I'd not brought water, but there was no need. You wouldn't want to drink from the brooks. Mortality among mountain sheep is high, and if you drank from a brook, there was a more than negligible chance you'd find a dead one in the water further upstream. But I knew where the springs were; where crystal-clear, ice-cold water bubbled magically out of the ground. Me first, then Boots: I didn't fancy the slobber. Boots and I kept running.

This was a little hard on the dog, you might think. Boots was no longer young. He would have been around eight years old at this time, and that is getting on a bit for a big-boned Lab. But as the children of yesterday spent their lives running, so too did their dogs. I had no worries about Boots. For two hours or so of every weekday evening of summer — when the demands of rugby and boxing had gone into their seasonal hiatus — we would play cricket. Bat in hand, I'd throw a ball — a hard, bouncy power ball was ideal — against the garage wall, and Boots would chase it off my bat and then bring it back to me. The grass beneath my feet had worn away to a dusty dirt patch. The ball, sopping wet from Boots's saliva, picked up the dirt, and the wall, once gleaming white, had slowly transformed over the years to near pitch-black. Two hours every summer evening of chasing; hunting down the ball, and only reluctantly being coaxed back into the house when it was too dark to see any more. Boots could run all day. And apparently, on this day, so could I. On we ran, tramping the wiry mountain grass and springy heather.

A couple of hours later, we arrived at Twmbarlwm — the remains of an Iron Age fort that once stood guard over the hills that gaze down on where Newport is today. All that remains of the fort is a conspicuous mound of earth on the ridge of the mountain-top, clothed with thin grass. Later in life, whenever I arrived back to visit my mum and dad, I would see Twmbarlwm — ‘the tump' — as the train pulled into Newport, or later as I drove down the M4, letting me know that I had come home.

Then, we turned around and ran back because we still couldn't think of any reason not to. We arrived home from our day on the mountain at the beginning of the long twilight, in time for supper.

‘Where did you go today?' asks my mum.

‘Just up the mountain.'

I didn't bother to add that we had run the better part of a marathon. Boots was soon pestering me for an evening game of cricket — before it got too dark.

In some respects, this day anticipated certain themes that would dominate the runs of my later life. But in other respects, it was entirely unusual. The way I remember this day, it makes me sound like I was the Haile Gebrselassie — the great Ethiopian distance runner — of the eastern valley. But I really wasn't very good at running, not compared to many of my friends. I may have spent a large portion of my young life running places, but so did they. And many of them were much better at it than I was. I remember well the unqualified ignominy of my first cross-country run. This was an annual school event, and my first one took place only a year or so before this run along the Mynydd Maen. To describe myself as a jock would, probably, be anachronistic — the expression certainly hadn't reached the shores of Britain at this time. But I suppose that is what I was, anachronistically or not. A central figure in the rugby team, and captain of the cricket team, I'd expected to do well in this race — I don't remember how long it was, but somewhere around five miles would be my guess. But little skinny kids, some of whom were my friends, some of whom I barely knew — but all of whom were not fit to lace my rugby boots — blew by me as if I were standing still. I finished in the middle of the pack — and that is only if we assume the pack had a large middle. As a consequence, I developed something of a love-hate relationship with running. I still did it all the time, of course. Running to school day in day out, or even running with Boots on that mountain,
I never regarded as running. It was just part of life. But events — races — I did my best to steer well clear of those.

At least, I steered clear of them if they were above a certain distance. I did not mind the short stuff, largely because I was moderately good at it. I was on the track team in high school. That wasn't quite right either. ‘Track team' is also a transatlanticism that seems to have insinuated itself into my thought patterns. We didn't have ‘track teams' in south-east Wales in the 1970s. If there was a schools' athletics event coming up at the weekend, one of the sports teachers would say something like: ‘Rowlands, you're quite fast. Go to the stadium on Saturday and run in the hundred metres.' Not fancying a Saturday spent hanging around the stadium waiting for my race, I would reply with something like:

‘What about Parkesy, sir? He's faster than me.'

‘He is away this weekend — you'll have to do it.'

Cwmbran had an athletics stadium — incongruously well equipped, given the ill-equipped state of Cwmbran as a whole. As a result, most athletics events in Wales were held there. So that is where I unenthusiastically found myself two or three weekends a year. I seem to remember I was once placed third in the Wales Under-15s One Hundred Metres Final — though I suspect there were lots of David Parkes' missing that day.

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