The Colossus of Roads

‘Colossus of Roads’ began as a sketch for a song or poem, a humorous look at my own late-flowering and less-than-athletic assimilation into the keep-fit-FitBit-kulture.

Sometimes it’s the butterflies
Sometimes it’s the view
Sometimes it’s just the steps
I know I must accrue

Now that my world has shrunk to a 25-step indoor mini-stadion, it’s somehow become a full-blown article.

(c) David Harley 2020 – all rights reserved

I’m not sure how I feel about zoos. I appreciate that wild, migratory animals don’t belong in cages or tiny enclosures. Even going out on a reserve in Namibia, where leopards and cheetahs had learned to rely on the guides who threw hefty joints of raw meat to them, seemed wrong on more than one level. As for circuses, the only defence I can see for keeping performing animals is that at least the big cats can be used for clown-culling.

Yet… Before the security industry finally decided at the end of 2018 that it didn’t need me anymore, I spent quite a few years pontificating at high-profile conferences in various corners of the globe – often in the company of my wife, who likes travelling far more than I ever did, and insisted on adding some mutually-enjoyed vacation time onto any work-related trips I took to places that interested her. Those trips included visits to some fairly impressive zoos: notably, Singapore, Sydney, San Diego and Berlin. And while it may not be totally politically correct to enjoy such visits, there’s some pleasure in seeing animals you’re never likely to see in their natural surroundings, and even more in knowing that at least they’re not likely to finish up as individuals on some “sportsman’s” trophy wall or Facebook photograph, or hunted to extinction to feed the market in aphrodisiacs or fur coats. And I guess zoos have roles in education, scientific research, and conservation, as well as providing sheer entertainment.

You may or may not think that’s sufficient justification for their existence. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d ever spent much time thinking about the ethics of zoo-keeping until one of those aforementioned zoo visits, some years ago.  One of my enduring memories from that visit is of a bear walking – on its hind legs – round and round a small corner of its enclosure, presenting the classic image of a prisoner in solitary confinement. I’ve been reminded of that memory recently, as in 2019 I was persuaded to take daily walks in the hope of lowering my blood pressure, reducing my overabundant triglycerides, and countering a longstanding shift away from being youthfully underweight to being – well, neither youthful nor underweight.

There were, of course, many opportunities in pre-Covid Cornwall to take my daily walk along a beach or a clifftop (as long as it was not too near the edge – I don’t do well with heights). Or I could amble around one of our very nice National Trust and other gardens. Admittedly, such expeditions are slightly compromised exercise-wise, by the opportunities they offer for enjoying a not-altogether-low-carb lunch.

On other days, seen from a perambulatory point of view, the advantage of living on the side of a hill is that there are plenty of possibilities for walking, and the fact that I can’t go more than a few hundred metres in any direction without a significant upward or downward change in elevation guarantees a modicum of healthy aerobic exercise. In 2019 my birthday present from my wife was, considerately, a step counter wrist device, so that I didn’t have to rely on an erratically functioning phone app or even keeping a step count in a head that was already packed with earworms, half-written lines and fantasies that are probably best left to your imagination (or, better still, mine). It’s not the market leader in step counters, by the way: I like to refer to it as my Not-Very-Fit-Bit.

The flipside of these opportunities for healthy exercise was that I also got to experience more of Cornwall’s impressive capacity for rain and wind than is strictly enjoyable. Thus, even before the pandemic there were days when my exercise regime consisted of walking from the hall, through the kitchen, to the lounge, and back. And again. And again…

Covid-19 reduced my opportunities to change scenery dramatically. As my own opportunities for walking – and the volume of motor traffic dwindled –the number of people discovering my little corner of Cornwall as a potential exercise venue increased dramatically: more walkers, many more cyclists, the latter seemingly disconcerted to find that country lanes are not cycle paths. Indeed, I find myself remembering all those Londoners who assume right of way on footpaths, ringing peremptory bells to order mere pedestrians out of their way. (They aren’t called wheelpaths, guys…)

Even at the time of maximum lockdown, I’d meet walkers and cyclists in pairs, sometimes whole families. I can’t begrudge them the opportunity to enjoy the same scenery that I do, but not all of them are too concerned about maintaining social distancing in our narrow lanes. Even the horse-riders seem to assume that vertical distancing is as effective as the horizontal version, so when they meet a pedestrian they are happy to continue to ride two abreast on a lane that barely exceeds two metres in width. When we met a family playing hide and seek on Trencrom Hill and one of the children used us as camouflage, we concluded that this was no place for a 70+ bloke with at least one ‘pre-existing condition’.

So, more and more, my vista has contracted from the hills of West Cornwall to the hall, through the kitchen, to the lounge, and back. And again. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.) This requires an augmented range of coping strategies. The TV is placed optimally for playing the couch potato, less so for the walker who visits the lounge every 25 steps or so. iPod has its advantages, but I’m easily distracted by that little voice at the back of my brain that insists on keeping count of my steps. (Jack Reacher’s internal counter that always knows the time of day now seems a little more believable.) There are few opportunities to change my route. I try to practise songs I’m in the process of learning or draft things in my head, but my thoughts keep shooting off into the middle distance. Sometimes I read, but holding a large book with one hand in a position that encourages reading is uncomfortable, and holding it in two hands throws off my walking rhythm. I could try audio books, but doubt my ability to concentrate on text, given that music isn’t retaining my attention.

For a while I amused myself by alternating left wheel and right wheel at each end of the march so that a heat map of my movements would resemble an elongated infinity symbol. Well, given that I’m beginning to feel I’m doomed to spend eternity walking, there might be some logic to that. (For some reason autocorrect changed ‘symbol’ to ‘symptom’, there. Perhaps it aims to remind me that this is a therapeutic activity I need to maintain as long as I’m able.)

In recent years, I’ve been increasingly reluctant to leave the UK, begrudging the time spent in unproductive journeys to and from airports. You’d think that someone whose default mode is self-isolation would thrive in lockdown. I should have been more careful about what I wished for. While I always thought that when I finally retired I’d concentrate better on music and writing, but even before the virus, my concentration was flagging, fragmented into too many projects, interrupted by inessential soliloquies, an unexpected addiction to quizzes and travel programmes, and an inability to meet my quota of steps in one enormous perambulatory Grand Prix. It’s all too easy to derail my train of thought: one moment I’m typing, a few seconds later I’m surprised to find myself already well into another 500 steps or staring distractedly into the fridge.

And now I catch myself wondering how Paul Theroux is managing. Is a writer whose stock in trade is observation of the quirks of others at a disadvantage with only his own quirks and those of his family to feed his current creativity? Like one of those songwriters who can only write about the miseries of his own rock-and-roll lifestyle? Or do you re-examine your memories of mobility? Looking back at my own travel notes and random jottings, it’s not the exotica of Africa and Asia or even California that grab my attention right now, but the tantalizingly close paths of home.

Covid or Corvid? The crows mobbing over the farmyard at the end of my walk and the fields that surround me have always reminded me of the Lovecraft story where whippoorwills gather ready to catch the soul of a dying man. That seems more than usually apposite today, though I know the whippoorwill is a nightjar, not a corvid.

I’m not, of course, seriously comparing the plight of that unfortunate zoo-bound bear to my own situation, which is largely self-inflicted and, hopefully, largely beneficial. Though it seems that my noticeably reduced waistline is counterbalanced by a deterioration in my eyesight sparked by the impossibly pure light of Penwith. Perhaps enforced time indoors is slowing that deterioration, and I’ll be better placed to see the world if I ever allow myself back into it.

David Harley

Author: David Harley

Musician/singer/songwriter; independent author/editor

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