Reframing the Conversation: Jersey Festival of Words, part one

The Jersey Festival of Words took place between the 26thand 30thSeptember. I was delighted to be invited back for the fourth year running, not only because Jersey’s such a beautiful place to spend a few days but also because it’s been a pleasure to watch this festival grow and bring such a wealth of interesting writers to the island.

Photograph by Peter Mourant.

One of the themes that runs (ha!) through this year’s events is a reframing of the conversation around exercise and women’s bodies. It’s no surprise to find journalist, runner, swimmer and author of two books about exercise –  Running Like a Girland Leap In– Alexandra Heminsley involved in this. On the Friday evening, Alex interviews Bryony Gordon whose book Eat, Drink, Runchronicles her journey from couch to running a marathon. Then on Saturday afternoon, Alex herself is interviewed by Cathy Rentzenbrink alongside Libby Page, author of debut novel The Lido.

Frankly, I could review Bryony’s event purely by using direct quotations. If you need a soundbite expressing things about exercise that other people (including myself) will recognise, she’s your woman.

Alex and Bryony begin by discussing the version of sport and exercise we’re sold. The idea, perpetuated right from primary school, that if you’re not good at sport you shouldn’t be doing it. This is followed by the marketing of running to women as something to do to make ourselves acceptable to others. Bryony: ‘I was scared of exercise…for me it was so rooted in self-loathing. I wanted to look like someone else.’ She began running ‘in desperation’ in the hope it would help her mental health. ‘I just needed to stay alive.’ It worked. Bryony realised there was a point where ‘I wasn’t doing it for the losses, I was doing it for the gains’.

Alex: Did you go quite slowly to begin with?
Bryony: What do you mean to begin with?

Bryony decided to run the marathon after thinking it ‘can’t be harder than the days when I can’t get out of bed’. Alex talks about how marathons are good for mental health because you’re ‘locked into a structure’ with the training regime. Bryony mentions the high that comes around mile 10 or 11, ‘I did that with my own body and that’s kind of magic’.

Having run the marathon in her underwear despite being told she needed to lose weight in order to do so, Bryony discusses the so-called ‘obesity crisis’ in relation to exercise. ‘When people who are overweight go out and show themselves and do exercise we’re all, “Put it away”. Obesity to me is as much a mental health problem as it is a physical one.’

It’s a theme that’s picked up again at the lido the following afternoon. ‘There’s no lean thigh or buff arm in the universe that will keep you exercising. It’s community and friendship,’ says Alex. This is echoed by Libby whose novel The Lido is about people coming together to save a local lido, making friends and enjoying swimming along the way.

Libby mentions how ‘community spaces are very much under threat’, linking the threatened closure of lidos to the rapidly disappearing libraries. She also mentions that one of her characters, Kate, who is in her 20s, suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. She’s ‘feeling quite lost in the world’ and it’s the sense of community and the friendship with Rosemary, who’s in her 80s, which allows her to feel less alone.

Alex talks about the connection between swimming, breathing and stress and how helpful the sport can be for managing anxiety. You have to be calm, she says. She thought learning to swim outdoors would give her control over an element but there is no controlling the sea. She describes swimming in the sea as ‘completely intoxicating’. Libby adds that swimming outdoors ‘really changes your perspective of things’ and relates an anecdote about being interviewed at Brockwell Lido in the rain. She didn’t want to get into the water for photographs but ‘It was suddenly just beautiful’.

Cathy mentions that she lives by the sea. She’s been contemplating swimming but hasn’t plucked up the courage yet. Both Libby and Alex offer tips but it’s the benefits to mental health that are mentioned which hold the most appeal. Libby says, ‘It makes you really happy!’ while Alex tells us she was at the lido at 6am with Bryony before the latter’s flight back to London. They swam as the sun rose and Bryony said, ‘I’m going to hold this in my body all day now’.

After the event, a group of women descend the steps into the water. Cathy and I watch standing at the railings above. It looks like fun; it looks like something we might try soon.

Running Like a Girl – Alexandra Heminsley

If, between 1991 and 2011, you’d asked me what I did for exercise, or to come to a class with you, or to join a gym, my response would’ve been ‘I don’t do exercise’. Until I was 13, I used to dance – an hour of ballet and an hour of tap a week. I stopped ballet when it was time to start pointe, I couldn’t face the thought of mangled feet, but I only stopped doing tap because my music teacher told me I had to. If I was serious about being a musician – which I was – then I needed that time for practice. In hindsight, this seems ridiculous. What difference would an hour a week – an hour which was good for my head, as well as my health – have made? But my parents and I didn’t know any professional classical musicians bar my teacher and her husband, so I stopped dancing. Oh, we did PE lessons at school, if you count long-fielding so the ball hardly ever gets near you and walking the cross-country track. I used to be the last person chosen for the various teams we had to divide into – can’t understand why! Then over the next twenty years there would be various attempts to join classes – step, street dance, yoga, pilates – and two gym memberships that would work out at approximately £200 per visit – but largely I stood by my claim that I ‘didn’t do exercise’.

Then lots of things happened – my relationship broke up; I moved city; I changed jobs; I developed chronic insomnia – and throughout all of this, I put on weight. Lots of weight. By September 2010, I decided I had to do something about it. My insomnia was under control; I’d moved to the countryside; I’d stepped down at work. Starting a new job was a bonus as it meant I could take healthy meals to work and no one would comment on them as they wouldn’t know any different. I joined WeightWatchers. I weighed 18 stone, five and a half pounds (257.5lbs) and I couldn’t walk upstairs without being out of breath and my joints cracking under the strain. I still didn’t do exercise though. Well, apart from the ½ mile I had to walk – uphill – from the bus stop to work and back. Eventually I realised that this was helping my weight loss and when, six months in and three stone (42lbs) lighter, my weight loss started to slow down I decided to start walking.

Initially, I just wanted to shift more weight and, knowing that me doing exercise would not be a pretty sight, I started doing a three and a half mile circuit round the outskirts of the small town I lived in, in the dark. This was a temporary measure, right? It’d shift those stubborn pounds and then I could go back to sitting on the sofa eating berries rather than chocolate. Wrong.

And it turned out to be wrong not because I had to exercise, but because I wanted to exercise – dear god, what had become of me?

This is what I’d learned: that exercise toned your body – I was in a dress size smaller than I had been the last time I was the same weight; that exercise cleared your head – all that time in the open, with nothing but fresh air and your thoughts; that exercise brought out the competitive side of me – even though I was only competing with myself, I was getting round my circuit quicker. Then I went on a longer – seven mile circuit – and eventually I signed up to do a 10 ½ mile midnight walk for a local hospice. Me, the woman who didn’t do exercise, walking, at night (of course!), for charity. I raised £250. I think my friends and family were just so bloody gobsmacked that I’d agreed to do it. Not only did I do it, that evening I walked the two miles uphill to the next village (and back) to listen to Jackie Kay talk about Red Dust Road without a single ache to show for it.

In September 2011 – now four stone, 12lbs (76lbs) lighter – I did what I should’ve done years ago and joined a dance class. And then I joined another one. I loved it. And although I was hopeless for the first few weeks, when the six week trial period was up, I could see how much I’d improved and how much fitter I’d become, even in such a short space of time. I went on to lose just under another stone and a half (20 ½lbs), making six stone, four and a half pounds (88 ½lbs) in total. I maintained that loss for over a year. How? Exercise.

Now, I’ve moved house and job – again – and live with my boyfriend and his little boy. It’s been easy to let the exercise slip and I’ve put a few pounds back on. Not only do I want to get rid of those, I want to lose the other two stone that I’d signed up to WeightWatchers wanting rid of. For one thing, I have a wardrobe of size 10 clothes that has moved house with me five times now and I’m determined to wear it! So, a few weeks ago we were out for dinner with our friends Kev and Sarah and Sarah mentioned running. My first instinct – I don’t do running.

‘Oh, I couldn’t run a hundred yards when I first started’, said Sarah and then went on to come up with a plan that involved the park near me – it’s one of the few flat places in a city built on seven hills – and talk of power-walking if necessary. Tentatively, I agreed. And then it snowed. What a shame.

But the idea niggled and then another Sarah (Sarah Rigby of Hutchinson) pointed me towards Alexandra Hemingley’s Running Like a Girl. What’s the worst that can happen, I thought? It’ll be sanctimonious drivel and I’ll have lost a few hours. So, on Saturday, I was in the pub waiting for my boyfriend to come back from the footie. I ordered a pint of stout and sat in a corner, Kindle in hand. He arrived somewhere around chapter four and I told him he wasn’t allowed to talk to me.

I wasn’t the sporty type, it was as simple as that. I was a curvy girl with little or no competitive spirit.

Yes! That was me.

That was it, I was going to run around the block. I had high hopes: hopes of the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel and the speed of a gazelle.

‘The arse of an athlete’ you say? Well, maybe I am interested.

Within seconds – not even minutes – my face had turned puce with intense heat and my chest was heaving.

The wobble of my thighs, the quake of my arse, the ridiculous jiggle of my boobs, they seemed to mock me as the Saturday dads stared at me in horror from the playground.

When I woke up the next morning I felt as if I had been run over by a truck. A big truck with huge grooved tyres.

Oh, I was so right about this. That’ll be me. Running is so not for me.

Heminsley goes on to say the same:

I remember being thirty, having total confidence that running was utterly beyond me…I wasn’t a runner and that was that.

Phew!

But then, several months later, she decides to try again:

Finally I could see with startling clarity that the time I had spent experiencing any pain on account of running was embarrassingly outweighed by the amount of time that I felt good about it. I was aglow. I was invincible. I was thinking I might be able to do it again.

The next day I applied for the London Marathon.

Bollocks.

But you know what? I’m interested in what it feels like to run the marathon. I’m in awe of people who can push their bodies to do amazing things – I can’t watch sporting events without crying at how incredible it all is. So I kept reading.

There are several things about this book that are really good:

  • it’s not sanctimonious or preachy. In fact, Heminsley details the times she’s been in pain; felt like she’s been unable to finish a run, and given up running altogether;
  • it’s funny! And full of tips about things that Heminsley wishes she’d known before she started (Including a hilarious story about needing the loo on a training run.);
  • it’s got a whole section to help you get started and answer any questions you might have, including equipment, make-up which will stay put while you run and possible injuries. Although apparently running won’t destroy your knees, which has always been one of my top reasons for not doing it. Oh.
  • the chapters where Heminsley talks about running marathons will restore your faith in humanity.

So, whether you run, whether you’re thinking about running, or whether you’re just interested in what it feels like to run a marathon or up and down Arthur’s Seat as part of a light instillation, this is the book for you.

One of the most interesting sections for me was the one about pioneering women who fought – by turning up and running in events they weren’t allowed to – for women to be able to run marathons. Did you know marathon running for women wasn’t an Olympic event until 1984? That’s within my lifetime and frankly, outrageous.

Has it convinced me to start running? Well, two things just might have – the opening line:

The secret that all runners keep is that they don’t do it for their bodies, but their minds.

and the fact that women weren’t allowed to compete in long distance runs until the 1960s and then the Olympic marathon until 1984. Anything that sticks two fingers up at the patriarchy, eh?

Heminsley says that she wants to ‘create a nation of runners, strong and proud!’. I might just join her but, for all our sakes, I’ll be doing it in the dark.

 

 

Thanks to Hutchinson for the review copy.