Wednesday 19 June 2019

R D Robinson for God (unquote)

I've just finished reading When Running Made History by Roger Robinson. I'm not a runner. I was pretty fast as a kid, but that was very long ago, and now I rarely do even the downhill jogs that were an integral part of my morning routine until Tom Cruise ruined that for me (if you want to hear that story, you'll have to ask, regular 😃 reader).

No, the initial reason I read the book was purely because RDR was one of my lecturers at Canterbury University back in 1974, and the one who made the greatest impression on me during the whole four years I was at varsity. He was different from the others: English, droll, effortlessly learned, but also lean and fit. He made academia seem glamorous. It also helped that the subject was English III - The Novel, and he was lecturing us on Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Our Mutual Friend and North & South, amongst others. That sort of brilliance would reflect well on anyone. But Dr Robinson was so comfortable in those writers' company, so familiar with them, so clear-eyed about their failings, and also so honestly admiring of their achievements, that they all merged together, members of some enviable club of literary greatness which we mere students just peered in at through the windows. 

I wasn't the only one smitten. I know of others who worked tenuous references to The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner into their essays about the narrative role of Nelly Dean, or didacticism in nineteenth-century literature, in the hope of ingratiating themselves with a man we all knew ran marathons. I never stooped so low. So I've never forgotten going to his office to pick up my marked (handwritten!) essay and getting a grin and a "Super-good!" as he handed it over. And I kept the essay, warmed to the core by the margin comment about my style, and the final one about my cogent argument and fluent writing. The sliding off-topic criticism, not so much; though it was, and still is, accurate, I'm perfectly comfortable with admitting. I've made it my thing, actually.

Anyway, the book. I'm not going to review it properly, because that would be stretching the remit of this blog - but it is entertaining, and interesting, and very readable, and much more relevant to non-runners than you might expect. RDR (can't call him Roger. Or Robinson) traces the growth of running as, originally, an eccentric past-time/obsession mostly through his own lifetime but with historical references, right up to the present where it's both an unremarkable everyday habit and an important sport. He shows how running links with, demonstrates, even drives, some important social changes during that time. What really makes the story riveting, though, is his fortuitously - or possibly not - being on the spot for a number of major events - not just world record-breaks, but internationally pivotal things like the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings.

So that's interesting whoever you are - but, for me, there's the extra enjoyment of so many of the places he mentions where he's run, or reported on running, being part of my life experience, too. From Wellington to Ross-on-Wye, Central Park to Hyde Park, Rome to Sydney, Kenya to Christchurch - every couple of pages, there was a ping! of recognition, and instant mental transportation. And that, of course, is what this blog is about, eh: connections.

Saturday 1 June 2019

Seoul, Day Four - A long walk and then a long sit

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil.

Saturday today, so we got off to a later start – the shops don’t open till 10am at weekends here. We drove north again, along wide avenues and past some amazing buildings, including one big silver job that was all curves – a stadium of fashion, apparently. It was a high-end area with some very fancy shops, but our aim was Insadong market, a pedestrian street with offshoots – arty, quirky, colourful. There was a private Toy Museum with a life-size Homer and Marge outside, and small models of Wallace and Gromit inside amongst thousands of others. We passed a takeaway cocktail stall, a handmade traditional porcelain doll studio, lovely individual fashion shops (tailored exclusively for those with waists, sadly), bags, shoes – and, our first stop, a cat café.

Of course these are everywhere now, even in Auckland, but it turns out variations on this are a big thing in Seoul – there’s a sheep café, a raccoon one, reptiles, puppies and, we discovered a bit later, meerkats. We had a look at that one, and it wasn’t good – their raccoon was missing his tail, a lemur in a cage was agitated, and the meerkats were penned in a glass room. This cat one was nice, though – prettily decorated and inhabited by about a dozen mostly bored cats, some rescued, some donated. There was a munchkin, a hairless one, various coloured shorthairs, and one immensely fat cat who, they told us delightedly, weighed 7kg. That was a bit confronting, since mine at home recently weighed in at 7.5 – but he looks nowhere near as fat as this one. It’s all muscle!

We stroked and gave ear scratchies, drank our coffee, and moved on. I think the cat cafés are ok, knowing cats, but can’t approve of the others, which are just too unnatural. We carried on wandering along the streets and alleys, past an extraordinary number of skin-care shops where masks were the big thing. Not just face masks, but masks for lips, feet, thighs, bellies, buttocks and even breasts. We were given samples of face masks made from snails, even. Not sure that stuff would ever wash off.

We passed through an area of big glass buildings, street sculpture, neat landscaping, and it was all immaculate, despite there being no litter bins anywhere – honestly, I carried a paper wrapper for an hour before finding somewhere to leave it. We crossed over a small river that runs below road level through the city for about 14km, that long ago was built over, until one forward-thinking mayor decided, against strong public opinion, to resurrect it at huge expense. Now it’s just lovely – a natural-looking shallow river bubbling along over rocks, fringed with trees and well-used paths each side, and everybody loves it, especially in summer when they come down for a cooling paddle.

All that walking had got us a bit peckish, so Sue took us into a very ordinary café for dumplings. We should have realised from the long queue for takeaways outside that it was a little gem. We squeezed inside and around the worktable where people were kneading, rolling and shaping dough, up a steep wooden staircase and into a small room crowded with Formica tables, almost every place taken by women. They shuffled along though and we were able to sit down and wait for Sue’s choice of our dumplings to be delivered – which they were, very quickly.

There are few things less appetising, to my eye, than Asian dumplings: pale and sweaty: they never look cooked, and are totally untempting. Also, tricky to handle with slippery stainless steel chopsticks – but turns out it’s worth the effort. They were so yummy! Just the right level of spicy, and the fillings really tasty. We all ate far more than we’d intended, and Simon actually said it was the best food he’d had all trip – which was a bit of an insult to Dosa, the Michelin-featured restaurant, and the famous Bamboo House, but there you go. The people's food, eh? Hard to beat.

We kept walking, and eventually emerged from the maze of shopping streets back at the big avenue, by a gateway pavilion and section of the old city wall, and in amongst the traffic again, where faithful Mr Kim was waiting in the van, summoned by the super-efficient Sue. She was so good, friendly and well-informed and organised, she really did make our brief flit to Seoul feel like a proper visit, and gave us a proper handle on the city. But her job was now over, so we hugged and said goodbye back at the hotel.

The others were beginning their IATA conference stuff, so I sloped off to check out the reptile café – tortoises, lizards, a snake, check – which looked like more of a pet shop really, and then got sucked back into the Starfield mall beneath the COEX centre.

It’s vast – wide, airy halls past endless shops, many of them Western, and busy with well-dressed people. I went back to the free library Sue had shown us on the first day, and the art installation that was then draped in white plastic was now on display: shimmering rainbow panes in a big circle. Very lovely. As were the cakes in the little shop up on the mezzanine. There were people there to watch a grand piano recital but, truly, most were either doing homework at the desks or simply sitting reading books. It was good to see.

I also caught a K-pop concert near the food hall: two groups, one boys, one girls, doing all the moves to that catchy music, watched by tiers of fans. That K-pop thing, it’s so much more than the music – it’s an industry. We saw band names and faces everywhere, advertising everything from biscuits to face masks. I understand that exploitation of the artists has been/even is, a thing in some cases. The companies behind them are huge.

And then that was that: time for me to head home. Mr Kim picked me up, and we had a good run out to the airport, 1hr 10, and I enjoyed seeing those magnificent bridges again in the evening sunshine. Not so impressed to notice a Trump tower this time. My flight with Singapore Airlines left promptly at 11.45pm, and I slept despite being in a restricted-recline economy seat. Five hours later at Changi I triumphantly secured my tentatively-promised business class seat, and spent the Air New Zealand flight home in my own little lie-flat pod, mothered by the friendly cabin staff. I ate lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, all of it very nice, had a sleep, watched a boxed set of The Good Place, and arrived back in Auckland safe and sound at 10.25pm. 


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