Resolutions: The Importance of finding a “Bill Spratt”

When I was fourteen I wanted to be taller and faster. I’d been the skinny kid for all my school life up to that point, and I wanted to be bigger and to be able to win races. With a birthday just before the start of the New Year, I decided to combine the two and I resolved to grow as much as I could in the following year up to my fifteenth birthday, and to take up athletics to make me faster.

I embarked on a regime of exercise and a high protein diet which,  based on my limited knowledge of nutrition science, I decided would make me grow taller. I took up running, joined a local club, and ate more eggs and chicken than ever before – my mother however drew the line at letting me eat steak on a regular basis.

I trained hard. Beginning in the winter months proved to be a good test. My coach, a local man named William Spratt (known to all as Bill), was supremely fit although forty years my senior, and he would make me train in all weathers. Three times a week I’d run a mile, meet Bill and we’d continue on a circular route for another two miles that would bring us back to my house and then he’d continue on afterwards back to his house – I worked out later that he knew the distance from my house to where we met, and that I’d run three miles each time, but he’d run twice that. I also found out that Bill had been the first Cambridgeshire man to run a marathon, and he was something of a local legend, although he never mentioned it. I felt very fortunate to have him as my coach. He was a tough coach though, more than once I phoned Bill on a training night to say “it’s raining hard” or “the snow is quite heavy”, followed by “shall we give it a miss?” – we rarely did, the only time he would agree was if the conditions underfoot were dangerous – either too icy, or compacted snow. Rain was never an excuse. During our winter training Bill decided I would run the 400 metres on the track in the summer season, as this would suit my leaner frame and he would make sure that my endurance levels were high enough for this demanding distance, which is run as a sprint.

Bill - my athletics coach and mentor

Bill – my athletics coach and mentor

On winter weekends Bill would take a group of us to train at our local woodland, where there was a steep incline of about 150 metres (not easy to find in the flatness of the fens!). He would drill us up and down this slope, in what he called a “pyramid”; this involved running up the slope as fast as we could, jogging back down, and repeating this in cycles of two, four, six, four, and two – in that pattern with no breaks in between. This was designed to push our endurance and build stamina.

Bill entered me for local and regional cross country races, I rarely finished higher than twentieth in a field of forty or more. I later learned that, as a 400 metre runner, I wasn’t expected to, but this was all designed to improve my stamina and also test my resolve. I have to admit that I did feel like giving up in a few races that went ahead despite driving snow, but I never did – Bill had taught me to run through the pain and the dips in energy and confidence.

Wednesday evenings were club meetings, the club was big, and the evenings were well attended by juniors through to veterans. I was one of the youngest, yet found myself training with a group a few years older than myself. We ran circuits around the streets near the club meeting place, and the drills were long and hard, but I loved drilling with the older kids, always trying to prove myself against them, seeing if I could keep up with the sixteen and seventeen year olds – of course I rarely could, but as my training went on I found myself only just behind their pace.

Around March of that year it was our inter-house school cross country. I’d told no-one, other than a close friend, that I’d been training, and then I entered the cross country – actually volunteering for it raised a few eyebrows! It was only a three mile race, so just the same length as my training runs. At the start I didn’t sprint to the front, I held off the pace a little, letting the usual boys surge ahead, but I didn’t let them get away from me. After about a mile I realised that this race was being run at a very slow pace, well below what I was used to in my training, I let it carry on that way for a few hundred yards more and then I just got bored of running so slowly, so I upped the pace, hit the front and before I knew it I was 100 metres ahead of them all. I recall my friend, who was racing too, shouting “go with him, he knows what he’s doing” – but nobody could, and I waited a good thirty seconds for the next person at the finish line. That was a good feeling, and I realised that just as I had resolved, I was becoming faster.

Then we got to the late spring, and the track season opened. We started training on a proper running track. It was the old fashioned cinder surface, most of which have since disappeared and have been replaced by the much friendlier tartan all weather surfaces, but I loved that cinder track, which gave me my first taste of running on a real circuit in spikes. We trained hard that spring, club nights were now at the track, although I kept my thrice weekly training road runs with Bill. At the track there seemed to be more people than ever, I was put into a group with four other boys, all a little older than me. We focused on sprint training, and more pyramids (this time on the flat though).

We trained hard all spring and into the summer. My legs had started to get very large, with muscly calves and thighs, and I remember my mother getting quite exasperated at the speed with which I was growing out of trousers – not just by height, but by the girth of my muscles. That summer I ran my very first competitive 400 metres, I finished fourth in a field of eight, and clocked a time of sixty seconds – which wasn’t a startlingly quick time, but at that age was not too shabby for a first race. Bill was happy. If Bill was happy, I was happy.

That summer, following my cross country victory, I was expected to take a clean sweep at the school athletics house competition. But I knew there was one boy that stood in my way, Martin Cleary. He was tall and fast. I’d never beaten him in a straight sprint at any distance. I discussed this with my mum, and I remember her saying to me , “David, have you not noticed how fast you’ve grown this year? You are nearly as tall as your father”. So absorbed had I become in my short terms targets that Bill had set me, that the cross country race had presented, and that  weekly training had given me, with a focus on getting quicker, I’d forgotten about the first half of my resolution – to get taller. Of course, I had been able to control my running speed improvement; by sticking to a strict training regimen I had improved my endurance, my stamina and my speed – these were all variables that I was able to influence to a certain degree subject to my own discipline and dedication. What I could not control, was how fast I grew or how much I grew. As it happens between the ages of fourteen and sixteen I went from barely being five feet tall, to being almost six feet tall. At age fourteen and a half I was now taller than Martin Cleary. More importantly to me, I was now faster than he was, and I finally beat him! Later that summer I went on to run the 400 metres with my club in under 55 seconds, and progressed to county standard – I really had got faster! My personal best a few years later was 50.2 seconds.

The moral of this story from my own personal trip down memory lane? Well it’s quite simple really, what I did all those years ago, without even realising, was to make an ambitious resolution, only to have it broken down into more achievable shorter term objectives by my coach, who knew a lot more about how to achieve my goals than I did. If I had set myself the goal of winning the cross country, running under 60 seconds in the 400 metres, or beating Martin, then I doubt that I would have focused on the steps to get me there. Bill provided me with those steps. Maybe we all need a Bill, to keep us company as we work towards our grand objectives we set ourselves as New Year’s resolutions, it is the Bill’s of this world who have the wisdom to help us achieve those objectives stepwise. So if you are considering setting yourself a New Years resolution of losing weight, giving up smoking, eating a healthier diet, and so on, then don’t try and do it on your own –  find your “Bill”, and you will stand a much higher chance of meeting your resolution.

As for growing taller,  well I just happened to grow due to my genetic make up, so the lesson there is that there are some things we just have no control of at all, so don’t go wasting your time by setting totally impossible New Year’s resolutions – because if you don’t have the power to control the variables, then you cannot effect change.

So thanks Bill, you are long gone from this world, but you and the lessons you taught me are not forgotten.

Cristes Maesse

I have tried to write several blog articles about Christmas over the last few days, their content has been varied. I started with taking a look at the “commercialisation of Christmas”, but that just felt tired and cliched, and I found myself sounding very judgemental. Then I tried a different tack and started to write about “The meaning of Christmas” – an over used phrase I felt, that just pandered to peoples need to eat and drink to excess during the holidays. Again I ended up sounding judgemental. Finally I tried observational humour, recounting a few anecdotes of human behaviour that I’ve observed during the preparations for Christmas – mostly in the shops – but my humour began to sound, guess what, judgmental.

Time for some self-analysis I thought, after all I cannot let the festive season pass without making at least one post on my blog. So I asked myself this question: “why are you so judgmental about how people behave towards Christmas?’

The answer surprised me. That answer is quite simply because I regard myself as a Christian. I was surprised because I am not a very good Christian, regular church going lapsed a while ago, I don’t pray every day, and I don’t always got to church on the main days in the Christian calendar. A good friend of mine (who is now a vicar) once said to me, going to church makes you no more Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car – I’ve possibly taken that too far and have been part of the “non-churched” for quite some time.

But back to my not so Christian judgemental attitudes. I suppose I had not realised the strength of my own feelings about Christmas, and what it represents. There are many who argue that Christmas is overlaid onto older festivals, and will point to the historical process of how Christmas came to be celebrated in December, and how Yule and Saturnalia were there first. And that’s all interesting. But it’s not theological and it’s not spiritual, it’s just historical and the fact remains that we do have a festival called Christmas. It’s also not a good enough reason to sideline what Christmas celebrates; after all the name itself rather obviously has something to do with celebrating Christ; the title of this article “Cristes Maesse” is the old English meaning “Christ’s Mass”, which later became Christmas.

Secular Christmas Illustration by apenotmonkey.com

Secular Christmas
Illustration by apenotmonkey.com

Consequently the secular use and notion of Christmas (“Cristes Maesse”) sits uncomfortably with me, after all would society at large hijack Ramadan for its own purposes? Would the supermarkets make lengthy, cheesy, questionably distasteful commercials around Diwali? Would there be black Fridays and cyber Mondays geared around Hanukkah? And if the answer to these questions is ‘no’, then how has the Christian church allowed one of their two main celebratory days, the other being the resurrection at Easter, to be so secularised and taken over in this way? What if “Christmas” was a trademark or was copyrighted to ensure that it was only used by the church to refer to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, how different might that be? It is of course naive to think that we could divorce the secular and Christian celebrations of Christmas, so entwined have the traditions become over the years one can hardly see the join. But for Christians, Christmas is more than a holiday, it is a holy day.

As a Christian, and as cliched as it sounds, I really would like to see “Christ” put back into the celebration of Christmas. The fact that Christ, in many ways, has been displaced from how much of society celebrates Christmas is quite bizarre when you consider it in those terms. And that is precisely my point, there are few, if any instances, of secular society hijacking any other religious festivals other than the Christian ones of Christmas and Easter, and divorcing them from their spiritual and theological meanings. So why should Christmas be swallowed up by everything that is not Christian, and therefore not about Christmas? The birth of Jesus was arguably his first miracle, and it is the virgin birth that we celebrate on Christmas day, we give presents to each other to remind ourselves of the gifts the magi gave to Jesus to honour him, we sing carols that celebrate the manner of his birth – “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, come ye o come ye to Bethlehem”, is a call for the Christian faithful to make a spiritual journey in our minds to the time and place of Jesus’ birth, and we feast to mark the joyous significance of Jesus’ arrival. It is a true celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  On December 25th Christians will celebrate that He has arrived

I hope that I have not been too judgemental of the secular, I have no objection to a secular holiday of course, but I hope that I have provided a small reminder that Christmas is supposed to be all about Christ.

Merry Christmas.

Milestones

 

 

milestone

Last month my blog clocked up one thousand hits. I was quite surprised at how pleased I was with reaching that milestone. This got me looking back at all of my posts to see which had been the most read, and I realised that, with the exception of the “cooking trilogy”, every post I have written is related to some milestone or other (I suppose family meals could be milestones too!).  Why is this? – I wondered.

Perhaps it is because I tend to measure my life by those milestones – I know many people who do the same, perhaps we all do to a degree. Each marker in time  is some kind of right of passage to another stage, another chapter, of our constantly unfolding lives. I actually get annoyed with those count downs to milestones, as I see that as wishing one’s life away.The Christmas countdowns that start well before December are one such annoyance, wishing time away just seems plain wrong to me – we have only one life in this world, so why wish for it to pass more quickly? Like most people I’ve experienced times when I have wished time would pass more rapidly and give way to better times, but now those better times are here I don’t want the days and hours to flash by. Father Time though seems to have a wry sense of humour and, as the skilled illusionist that he is, gives the appearance of life passing slowly when things are  tough, but speeding it up when life is good.

Looking back at my blog posts, which only started in June 2014, the milestones are a combination of personal and societal. The death of my mother and the death of a good friend were two events that put life into sharp relief, a time for evaluation and re-evaluation of my own values, needs and desires. That’s when I began to write again and I have marked days of inspiration, reaching 15,000 words  in my book (20,000 now!), and now one thousand hits on my blog; these are small achievements, yet they mark my passage towards something I’ve always hoped for – some form of literary achievement. I haven’t recorded every milestone of course – that might be a little tedious for anyone who reads my blog  – but also some of these milestones are best kept private, so for example I’ve not recorded the details of my son’s departure for university and my daughter’s theatrical and musical exploits, they are things we talk about as a family, and that’s where the details stay – within our family.

Milestones though can be about more than just  personal achievement or marking the (hopefully) happy progress of our lives. Some milestones are marked on a national, and even global scale, there are some that will always be commemorated. In this blog I have written about the anniversary of D-Day and the observance of Remembrance Sunday – both all the more poignant as 2014 marks the 100th year since the outbreak of the first world war and seventy years since D-Day. Our nation marked those milestones with great respect. But they are still just that – milestones, they mark a point reached and another years distance from the real events, and the milestones become history themselves.

On a more upbeat note our US cousins have just celebrated Thanksgiving, a major annual milestone, and a time for friends and family to meet and give thanks for each other and what they have been blessed with. A positive and reflective milestone. Soon we will celebrate Christmas and then New Year, traditionally times when we look back at the previous year and it’s milestones.

Milestones become history the moment after they are reached. I am reminded of possibly one of the finest lines from a contemporary play, from Alan Bennet’s “The History Boys”, it is spoken by the pupil Rudge, who up to this point has been mostly monosyllabic: “How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another”. It is a line played for wry laughs in the play, but of course it is true. History, is merely a sequence of events that occur in succession – whether that is our personal history or society’s. If we can do our utmost to make sure that “one thing after another” is made up of positive actions,valuable achievements, and enriching behaviours, for ourselves and those around us, then our personal histories we will have a strong influence on our society.

Perhaps there is a moral in here somewhere, and as we approach the end of 2014, for me that moral might be that in 2015 I am going to do “one good fucking thing after another”.

 

Note: Apologies if the expletive causes any offence, however it is a direct quote and loses it’s impact and emphasis if censored.