No doubt I should have been learning more (or at least something) about the Phoenix Park murders, or rereading the turgid pages of Le Baiser au lépreux: I felt a continuous dull guilt that I was neglecting my studies. I wasn’t using my teenage years to take my first fumbling steps towards love, or taking advantage of the days when a small seventeen year-old could buy a pint of bitter unchallenged, as long as he had the money: no, instead I spent many hours buying and selling coins to improve my collection using ads in Exchange and Mart. I must have been fascinating company.
Only later did I understand that indulging my passion for trading had given me good practice for my City career. Luckily I didn’t completely ignore my studies, as I might not have been offered my entry level job at a stockbroking firm without a degree of some sort.
Sometimes your teenage interests suggest – if not always clearly – your direction in adult life. Ten years ago I met up with old school friends Charles and Richard. I remembered Charles at school had enjoyed tinkering with machines: he had become a railway engineer, specialising, when called upon, in crash forensics. Richard, I recalled, used to relish an argument on a point of detail – he had become a lawyer. I was now a City trader. We raised a glass to square pegs in square holes. Sometimes the pieces fit.
But life at school isn’t always a reliable predictor of adult life. I don’t imagine Jem, for example, would have forecast that I would grow into someone who runs marathons for the fun of it.
His name was Jeremy, but we all called him Jem. Perhaps we should have spelled that Gem: he was small and bright – younger than the official age group for our year, but sent ahead because he was clever – also friendly and funny. We were in different forms, but I met him on my first day at Watford Grammar when we found ourselves washing our hands next to each other in the luxurious toilet annexe. Two older boys were using the facilities, and one called out “Hey you two, come over here!” (Relax, this does not go badly.)
We went over there, and were asked to stand with our backs to the wall. “Blimey! You fellows are small!”. One produced a piece of chalk and marked our heights on the wall. He stood back and pronounced Jem narrowly the “winner” – i.e. the shortest boy in the school, he reckoned – and shook our hands. We looked at each other and shrugged, relieved that all the stories we had heard at primary school of blood curdling initiation rites had boiled down to this mild and good-natured ceremony.
I can’t speak for Jem, but I saw my small stature as a badge of honour: I was confident of my academic ability, and gained my self worth from that. In the following years Jem and I would often contend to be top of the year in the fortnightly maths tests – until, that is, my understanding of the subject hit a calculus brick wall.
About five years later, we were shivering in Cassiobury Park on a Wednesday afternoon waiting to begin a cross country run. These runs were almost universally unpopular. They took place in the winter when the pitches were too waterlogged for rugby or hockey: as a result it was usually cold, wet, and very muddy. There was the fearsome Jacotts Hill, which seemed to appear in every route, and the ritual instruction to keep to the path as you crossed the golf course – as if, were you slain by a ball, the knowledge that you had been righteous might comfort you as you drew your last breath.
I was competitive. Most boys didn’t try, or didn’t admit to trying – it wasn’t cool, and those who enjoyed sport preferred chasing a ball around. Many slowed to a walk as soon as they were out of sight of the teacher. But I did my honest best, and struggled: typically placing about 80th out of 120 boys, when few ahead of me cared, and probably none behind me. I plainly had no talent for this.
So I no longer put much effort into these runs, and on this day Jem – no great enthusiast either – and I decided to jog round together. It started off well: we set off about three quarters down the field, and settled into a relaxed jog/walk which left enough breath for conversation. But after a mile or so we noticed that we had lost sight of the Athlete ahead of us, and when we came to the next junction we realised that neither of us had been paying attention when the sports master had been outlining the route.
How lost can you get in a town park? Well there’s nearly 200 acres of Cassiobury Park, and over the next forty minutes we did our best. I might have felt a little annoyance: after all, Jem lived on the Cassiobury estate, dammit. Well I guess he didn’t spend his weekends exploring the park. Our navigation skills were roughly equal. By the time we found the finish line, the master (it might have been “Beery”) had given up and gone home, assuming he had miscounted, or perhaps indifferent to the fate of the boys in his charge.
So had I asked Jem, as we trudged shivering back to the changing rooms, do you think that in late middle age I’ll run through the very same muddy park regularly, often on cold rainy days, half way through a 21-mile training run, because I want to? Will I run fifteen marathons on thirteen different courses? Then he would have looked at me pityingly, assuming that the trauma of our wanderings in the park had scrambled my brain.
So what changed? In my mid thirties I took stock of my health and realised that I wasn’t getting much exercise: I tried running and became addicted. I found it therapeutic to apply myself to something so simple yet so difficult: as I ran, knots would untangle in my head. And there was the question of control: now running was a choice, I could enjoy it. I wonder if Jem ever caught the running bug?
I’m pretty sure that I haven’t acquired any new talent for running over the past half century. At least I no longer have to worry about navigation when I’m in a big city marathon: there are always plenty of people to follow. But it’s a sport where tenacity and sheer bloody-mindedness count for a lot, and if those are talents, I claim them.