Fancy a pint? I’ll get them. Let’s sit right over there, where we can observe the punters coming and going from the bar. Who do you admire most in here? Is it that absent artist guy over there who gets paid for doing what he’d be doing anyway? The woman behind the bar with that fantastic body that she’s never had to work at? Rich, cool, modest Mr Nice Guy, patronising the losers, a democrat to his manicured fingernails? That ugly, taciturn chap with the devastating wit? The tough guy just come in who is afraid of nothing except strong drink? Or what about that cultured, articulate, free-thinking intellectual guy popping outside for a roll-up?
I’ll tell you who I most admire. It’s that guy over there with the broken-zipped gym bag and wet hair swigging from a bottle of J2O. And that young woman in the navy Kamae karate sweat top, come in for a quick one after a training session in the dojo. Those people are my people: the self-disciplined, un-neurotic, clean-living, light-on-their-feet, bright-eyed, shiny-faced, damp-haired fit people. I don’t mean the obsessive superfit. I don’t mean the sweaty, half-crazy meatheads. I mean the people quietly celebrating the fact that they have a body. The ones who aim to push it to its limit two or three times a week doing whatever it might be. The people so embedded in fitness culture that it has greater value to them than eating, say.
Perhaps I wouldn’t notice my admiration for fit people if I was embedded in fit culture myself. I have, unfortunately, a neatly divided personality and my adult life has been a struggle for supremacy between the two halves. Sometimes the me prevails that wants to live cleanly in a fit, healthy, strong and supple body; and sometimes the me prevails that wants to drink and smoke and take drugs and for which death has been a long-felt want. The result has been years on this metaphysical see-saw. Healthy, fit, non-smoking, non-drinking me feels fantastic but slightly bored. Debauchee me is never bored for a moment, but feels bloody awful most of the time. I’ve enjoyed both sets of drugs equally.
To keep fit I’ve played football and run around tracks and across country. I’ve practised karate with some degree of commitment (and laughable incompetence) for ten years. Despairing, I went to yoga classes to gain flexibility for the high kicks. There on that wooden floor I was surprised to learn more about my body than I had in ten years of marching up and down the dojo shouting, so I incorporated some yoga stretches into everyday life. I have a sea kayak covered in cobwebs that is brought up out of the cellar, washed, and goes back down again once every few years. Latterly I’ve covered myself in Pertex and walked up and down hills looking like a right ponce, and I still aim to visit the gym three times a week. At the gym I stretch, cross-country ski, row, and run on the treadmill. With the last one it helps a good deal that I am an utter moron and can perform repetitive tasks till the cows come home without noticing the tedium of it all. Not everybody has this gift.
But my exercise staple has been swimming. Always swimming. As exercise and recreation, I love swimming more than anything. I love it for the effect it has on the mind as well as the body. After 20 minutes lap swimming, the rhythm of the breathing and the stroke take over the mind and one finds oneself in a different place. I suspect that it is the place that the yoga people bleat on about all the time but never reach.
But however much I love to exercise and swim, I flip. Something as small as a single cigarette smoked after a long abstinence might tip me over, in Freudian terms, from libido (life force) to mortido (death wish). As Screwtape might put it, the spiralling descent into physical, moral and spiritual bankruptcy that one cigarette can set off never ceases to amaze me. From sencha green tea to cooking lager and MDMA in 24 hours. I could do a lecture tour of the temperance halls on the subject. (Tolstoy wrote a marvellous essay about it.) But equally, all it might take, after a week or a month, is a particularly bad hangover to get me back, trembling and shriven, in the gym again. And if it isn’t the hangovers which drive me back there, it is the conversation of the seers, babblers and mystics I encounter at every turn in my pub. After a week or two of that, it is such a pleasure and a relief to walk back into the gym and smell the sweat, and get the curt nod from the lunkhead gym attendant, his neck as wide as his head.
I mean, just look at them FFS. No, I won’t. Thanks all the same. Let me get you one, then I must go. Time I wasn’t here. I’ve got a Tibetan yoga class starting in five minutes.