200 Days and counting...

In 200 days, on 26 April 2015, I’ll be doing something perhaps a little crazy - something I wouldn’t have believed, a couple of years ago, that I even would have attempted: I’ll be running the London Marathon.

I haven’t been running all that long. Having grown up asthmatic and bookish I spent most of my teens and even 20s eschewing pretty much all kinds of exercise where possible, and only laced up a pair of Nikes about three years ago. I remember distinctly, in the early and even medium stages of the ‘couch-to-5K’ programme I was on, feeling like completing a 5K was near impossible… then it was something I accomplished. After that it seemed like trying to break 30 minutes was an insurmountable barrier… until I did it. It’s still kind of shocking to me how quickly running 5K became just something I do a couple or three times a week. The next challenge was longer distances, and recently I broke the hour barrier for 10K. Not world-beating pace, but another personal goal achieved.

I feel like running has taught me something about perseverance—about patience—and has helped shape my temperament over the last three years to some extent. I think of it as a similar discipline to meditation, and approach the two with a similar mindset. Both have taught me about my limitations and helped me start to reach a bit beyond some of them.

I don’t feel anywhere near ready for a marathon! But then, perhaps that’s how you’re supposed to feel with 200 days to go. The jump from 10K to 42.2K is genuinely daunting, and right now the thought of running constantly for what is likely to be somewhere around 4.5 hours is painful. But if it was easy I guess it wouldn’t be as worth doing.

So, now I have 200 days ahead of me in which the marathon will factor into almost everything else I do: 200 days of watching what I eat, training consistently and increasingly vigorously, and working towards a goal that right now seems kind of impossible. As soon as the acceptance letter came through I sublimated my anxiety with two things: first I used it as an excuse to hit the Nike store for gait analysis and finally upgrade my shoes; secondly, I started to think about which charities I’d like to run for.

The London Marathon remains Britain’s biggest single-day fundraising event, which in-and-of-itself is pretty remarkable. If I’m going to put myself through a lot over the next 200 days I’d like it to be about something bigger than just myself. And in truth it didn’t take much thought: I’ve chosen causes that have touched those closest to me - if you’d like details you can read a little more at the fundraising page, which is already up.

I’m looking forward to it, though anxiously. And I’ll make sure to keep you all updated on how much I’m missing sugar, and hating the hours spent running through snow-filled streets. Wish me more than luck.

On Performance

The difference between music played from record and music played live is, or should be, the human elements: spontaneity, invention, emotional immediacy. A good record can be wonderful company, its unchanging nature a great comfort - knowing you can return to it, an old friend, and avail yourself of its familiar charms. And it may seem to change, a little, as you change. The act or manner of your receiving it is altered as you are through time, but the recording is a static object.

A great majority of my relationships with art are of this nature. The books, films, paintings etc. that I love, like the records, don't change. I change, my perception of them changes, and there's value in that evolution; one can see oneself reflected in it. How you relate to a book differently to how you once did. What a painting used to mean to you. What you thought a movie was about.

Like performed music, the life of a piece of theatre exists in its human elements and is amplified by uniqueness. Where an academic career in literature nurtured in me the love of the word as written—of text—it has primarily been the decade-plus I have spent working in theatre that has convinced me, slowly but incontrovertibly, of the unique power of performed art.

There was a seed sown maybe at undergraduate level, when I first started reading Samuel Beckett. There is much in Beckett to love on the page: he is lyrical, supremely intelligent, wickedly funny, and can be hauntingly insightful. However, studying the plays alongside the novels and poetry, I began to discern the unique ability of performance to deliver something that even the most beautifully constructed paragraphs of text could not. At their core, perhaps necessarily, my most cherished experiences with texts are cerebral: the thrill of having a new point of view revealed to you, of being transported mentally to another set of circumstances, of becoming acquainted with persons entirely constructed by you, the reader, in collusion with a remote author—the atomic elements of which construction a mere 26 characters and attendant squiggles and dots of punctuation—all this remains something akin to magic in my mind. But there are things that the printed word cannot do.

The mere fact of having a living human being take the stage before you is enough to start firing up empathic synapses that even the most beautifully written first-person narratives can’t reach. Taking that as a starting point the stakes of live performance are exponentially higher, and the potential rewards more visceral, more immediate, less cognitively and more limbically driven. I have long loved film, which seems to fall here at some kind of half-way point: recorded media with a human face. As with recorded music there’s the luxury of replayability, of examining at one’s leisure the minutiae of a performance, and marvelling at the artistry by which it is heightened: camera angle and motion, editing, sound design…. All of which, again, is an exercise in appreciation at a remove that retains great value.

But I have found some of the thrill of theatre also to be contained in the knowledge that what one is witnessing, one will witness precisely once. No two performances will be the same, no two encounters between you as audience and the performer will be identical. Partly yes, as with the books and the paintings, you’ll carry something into the exchange on a subsequent occasion that wasn’t there the first time around, but also this in front of you is another full person, adding to the equation their own infinity of potential, broadening out the horizon of possibilities as to what might happen between you in the course of the thing to unknowable, dizzying dimensions unfathomable in the case of safe, unchanging works of static, non-performed art.

Aphex Twin on Art

Richard David James just released the first album under the Aphex Twin name for 14 years, and—perhaps just as unexpectedly—has conducted a lengthy, amiable interview with Pitchfork.

Reading the piece I was struck by the manner in which a number of James’s thoughts seemed applicable universally across all creative disciplines, and at all levels of output. For instance, there’s this on procrastination:

The number of times I can convince myself to purchase a new notebook instead of getting to work in the current one is maddening, and James captures that idea neatly. Sometimes it becomes about the setup rather than about the process, and the key is in catching yourself before that becomes too consuming.

Similarly there’s something here about routine, and the ease with which we fall into the trap of changing the wrong things as a way of avoiding the real work. It’s easy to start feeling like the important part is that you have the correct items of kit, and that that’s enough for the work to magically start to flow. When that doesn’t happen I’m certainly dumb enough to think endlessly about changing the setup instead of persevering with the project.

And then there’s this, which is important I think.

Endless ink has been spilled, and pixels rearranged, on the ways in which the advent of digital has reframed both the publishing & consumption of art; I’ve read less on how that has altered our understanding of what it means to be an ‘artist’. Something about James’s comment speaks to the fact that it’s ultimately the work that’s important, rather than the source. It’s not who you or your marketing team say you are; it’s not the vector by which your output reaches its audience; it’s not even your pedigree that matters - it’s the thing you’ve made, and how it makes people feel. Which, actually, James is also brilliant on:

Everybody Runs

Let’s talk briefly about the endless runner. The first instance of the genre I recall encountering was Adam Saltsman’s Canabalt in 2009, and it instantly seemed like a game-type whose time had come with the advent of touchscreen handhelds. The roots of the endless runner—with its constantly moving protagonist and emphasis simply on survival as a measure of success—seem to lie in those dreaded platforming levels where the screen scrolls at a constant pace. Entering those levels in Super Mario World or similar I was usually frustrated by the inability to take a breath and plan my next move, or to take time to break all the blocks I wanted - having control of pace taken from me as a player was often irritating in those circumstances, but that’s not my experience with endless runners.

It has something to do with the relative simplicity of what’s being asked: simply to assume control of the character’s movement in a single axis (normally the y in the games I’ve played) and to sustain movement as long as possible. Just as the simplicity of the controls make the genre perfect for playing on an iPhone, so too does this setup: you’re doing well if you last more than a minute or two, which works well for playing in bursts; but the genre has a powerful one-more-go pull that means you can also sit and play for a while. Here are my four favourite endless runners, including the two great releases from this last week that inspired this post:

Canabalt

There’s evidence to suggest the endless runner dates back to Commodore 64 gaming in the 80s, but there’s no denying it was Canabalt that popularised the genre in the modern era. Quite rightly it was one of the first inductees to MoMA’s video game collection in 2012.

Super Hexagon

This one works slightly differently to many of the other entries in the genre, but it’s coming from the same place in terms of gameplay: move that little triangle on its hexagonal axis and keep it from crashing into the incoming walls as long as possible. (As with many endless runners—for some reason—the game also features a killer soundtrack, this one from Chipzel).

Fotonica

I had this first-person twist on the endless runner downloaded a while ago for the Mac, but it makes so much sense on a touchscreen handheld and the new iOS version is perfectly executed.

Alone

Described to me as ‘Canabalt at the speed of Super Hexagon and somehow living up to that hype - this is the game I’m currently reaching for when I want to briefly flood my system with a hit of adrenaline.

The Goldfinch

I have just put down Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch having read the final 50 pages in one sitting of constant wrestling between competing desires: to speed through to its conclusion, and to savour its every last word. The final chapters have left me a little stunned, entirely in awe of how sublimely they are written, and—not to put too fine a point on it—elated; glad simply to be alive and to have been so touched by a work of art.

The final moments of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding had a similar emotional upswing that quite literally sent a shiver up my spine, but Tartt’s execution is more sustained. At the end of her 850 page novel she’s bold enough to have her narrator elucidate the emotional truth of the narrative, and somehow it not only works but is thrilling in a way it has no right to be. It’s a trick only a writer of Tartt’s talent could even consider attempting, the poor execution of which would undermine all that had come before. The effect of its resounding success is to leave the reader feeling as though they have been struck like a bell - something of the work itself vibrating out and through them. Personally I don’t think I’ve felt that upon completing a novel since I first read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion.

I can’t recommend The Goldfinch strongly enough. Read it around Christmas when some of its most important passages are set, when the evenings have grown short and it’s snowing outside. See if there isn’t something there that will be a light and a warmth to you.