The end of the road

Nick Cohen has adopted a new workout: wrestling with a novel

Running Repairs

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

For four years, running has been my obsession. I have bored my friends and family half to death about it, and foisted it on the readers of The Critic, who have never done me any harm and surely deserved better treatment. I would wake up five times a week, and think my most urgent task of the day was to complete a run before breakfast.

On Sundays, I would disappear for two or three hours for long runs of up to 20 miles that coaches told me would strengthen my heart and build oxygen-delivering capillary networks in my legs. As you would expect, I spent a large portion of my running career injured.

The truth is that the only way I can end one obsession is by finding another

If I wasn’t running, I was checking Strava — the runners’ Facebook — to see the times, speeds and distances my friends were recording. I would look at those who were faster than I was — pretty much all of them– and resolve to train harder. And now I’ve stopped running and this column must stop.

Ah-ha, I hear you cry, the old fool has realised it is preposterous for a man approaching 60 to charge about all over the place as if an armed gang were chasing him. We can only hope that at last he has found peace and will leave the rest of us in peace.

I wish I could say I had. The truth is that the only way I can end one obsession is by finding another. I am writing a novel, which I hope will be a satire of the descent into brutality of left and right set amid the collapse of traditional journalism. Peter Cook’s gag is the now standard response to announcements like mine. “I met a man at a party. He said ‘I’m writing a novel.’ I said, ‘Oh really? Neither am I’.”

For a long time, neither was I. You might look at today’s politics and culture and see an embarrassment of riches to plunder. My problem was there was too much. Where should I start, and more to the point, when should I stop? I can only write an article or book if there are constraints. Too much freedom and an abundance of material are for me a curse rather than a blessing.

To make matters worse, I am terrible at planning. I have always envied novelists and journalists, who draw a map of where their book will go, look down on it like an eagle soaring over the countryside, before swooping down to finish off the project. I work like a mole in the soil underneath the fields. I snuffle from paragraph to paragraph relying on my untrustworthy senses to give me a direction, and hope it will come good in the end.

Last month, it came good. By which I do not mean that I will write a good book, simply that the molehills came together to form a mountain: a solid whole with a clear path to the top. I can see it all and just have to transfer my thoughts to the page.

Don’t believe writers, and particularly don’t believe me, when they talk of the agony of writing. Misery comes when I do not know what to write. When I understand what I must do, and have a fair idea of how to do it, I am happy, and obsessed with the task in hand. The book wakes me in the night and gets me out of bed in the morning. By definition, an obsession demands single-mindedness. There is not time to obsess about running and writing simultaneously, and so the running has had to go.

My one regret is I did not emphasise the importance small changes can make to readers who want to enjoy life a little more

I have enjoyed writing this column, and I hope that at least a few readers have enjoyed reading it. Looking back through old Critics, my one regret is I did not emphasise the importance small changes can make to readers who want to enjoy life a little more.

Don’t set yourself goals you can never reach by saying you must train to run a marathon or to deadlift your body weight. For anyone over 40 stuck behind desks, it is enough to decide to walk or cycle wherever and whenever you can. An hour or 45 minutes five times a week makes all the difference.

As your muscle mass and bone density begin to wither away in middle age, it makes sense to include light body strengthening. You do not have to join a gym: a short and easy workout with a cheap set of dumbbells or resistance bands, a yoga or Pilates class, is more than enough.

Anyway, no more nagging from me. God and the editor willing, I will be reviewing books from the next issue. It will make a change from writing them.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover