h a r r i e t m a y

Repeat After Me

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We’re two and a half miles into a run when I feel it. “I’m going to stop and walk,” I say to Sam, who is running twelve miles today. We’re in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park along one of our usual routes, but I’ve been injured for three weeks so I’m only just remembering that the wildflowers have turned brown.

For those few miles I am in front of Sam, so cycling must be keeping my cardiovascular fitness at an ok level. It’s also keeping me bolshy: “I feel great!” I brag, running backwards to face him. He doesn’t mind. We get on so well because he ignores all the terrible aspects of my personality.

Initially I had thought that weeks of rest would make me a bit loopy, but actually it’s making me more sensible. I’ve taken off my FitBit (What is wrong?!, Thom had Whatsapped me on the first day as I slid down the weekly step count leaderboard), have added toning and flexibility exercises to my routine, and, having dropped the assumption that I can just eat anything, have actually lost four pounds.

I have been a runner now for nearly half my life. “What do you think about when you run?” asks everyone who has never tried. “Don’t you get bored?” But the secret is that running provides context for things that would otherwise be nonsensical: meeting at 6am every day in every type of weather for five miles and a tell-all with Pat and Vanessa; having a working dog with a quick-dry utility coat and no snooze button; earning medals just for taking part even as a bill-paying, newspaper-reading adult.

Running, like life, is largely repetition, and if you take it too seriously of course it’s difficult to say what the point is.

In 2013 the indie band The National played their song ‘Sorrow’ for 6 hours in a collaboration with the artist Ragnar Kjartansson. At Kjartansson’s exhibition at the Barbican in July, we wandered into a room where the recording of this event, in a piece titled ‘A Lot of Sorrow’, was playing in its entirety. We must have entered somewhere halfway through, because frontman Matt Berninger, although still steadily composed, is visibly tiring. We watched as two techies with trays of food enter stage left to offer burgers and fries to each band member; Berninger refuses but Bryan Devendorf eagerly accepts and crouches behind his drum kit to scarf down the offering.

Rather than stall the piece, this interruption adds to it. The band works to support one another and keep themselves interested, adding and subtracting various elements at various interludes, sometimes as a result of energy (guitarist Bryce Dessner’s nervousness, for example) and sometimes a result simply of time. But ultimately what the band creates is mindfully complex; many miles away from the reduction one might expect.

Why would anyone, in the first place, agree to perform a song on repeat for six hours? For the same reason anyone would take up long distance running.

We have to do something, to find out why we do anything.

Friend Request

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On a sunny Thursday evening in late August, I meet Ayesha outside Hackney Town Hall and we head to Netil 360. The rooftop bar just south of London Fields is cool, very cool; the view of east London is uninterrupted, while benches and beanbags atop the pea green astroturf are littered with people wearing muted tones, hidden behind round shades and sipping craft beers.

“Aperol spritz?” asks Ayesha, taking a side glance at me and expecting an “Obviously” in return. They’re served here by the pint, and if I didn’t before now I know that they are gently usurping the negroni. But I really love negronis, and someone once poured a ruinous amount of aperol into my Prosecco. I still haven’t quite got over it.

I suspect that very probably I do like them, or can learn. After some debate we order one and share it, like we’re kids attempting to savour the week’s pocket money. But Ayesha has won over the bartender by complimenting her dress, so she doesn’t mind too much, my indecisiveness, Ayesha’s sage compromise.

It’s paradoxically both difficult and easy to be social in London. There is lots to do but also several obstacles to doing any of them with people you already know. The first is simply geography; because when I first moved to London I settled in Brixton, south of the river Thames, that is where most of my friends live. Now I’m in Hackney there are 8 miles between us. Were this the American suburbs, that 8 miles would take approximately 15 minutes by car, but London’s streets are clogged and public transport– if you’re not a cyclist– is your best bet. Any way you slice it, it’s a trip that will take at least an hour.

Then there is calendar clash: if you live in London, you’re busy. It’s part of the reason you’re here. We are the easily bored, the ones who want to see around corners, both London’s and our own. Everything is either world-class or pop-up, and either way it’s usually transient, because people are experimenting and then they are moving on to something new. Recently we’ve seen Rebel Wilson in Guys and Dolls, Jonathan Franzen just after Purity was published, the Historic Palace’s limited-time-only Lost Palace “evening event” (which was really just a quirky take on an audio tour, but I really enjoyed it).

To combat this we invent concrete reasons to meet. Ayesha and I used to have dinner club, a given reason to cram into each other’s flats despite none of us owning enough chairs to accommodate. I’m not sure that in London anyone has dinner parties until well into their 50s, if ever; there just isn’t the room for sit-down hospitality. Dinner club had a good run until Jon spoilt it with 8 courses, which no one had the stomach to compete with.

And of course, everyone belongs to a book club, but with no time to read or to meet they are more formality than reality, even before you throw the meaty Magus into the mix (a book I loved, but everyone seemed to get stuck in. The key is to read using the Kindle app on your phone, when you’re making coffee at work or walking home late at night).

We split a second pint of aperol spritz (I’ve decided that although it’s no negroni, I like it enough), before walking to Dalston for dinner. En route we buy a bottle of Prosecco on Broadway Market and drink it on a park bench in London Fields. It’s good just to be our own pop-up event.

David Sedaris once wrote about the secret to success, in what has since become known as the Four Burner Theory. Picture a stovetop:

“One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

It’s difficult to want us all to be busy, successful Londoners, but not cut-off from one another. “I haven’t seen anyone, either,” Ayesha admits when I ask. Comforted by the knowledge that we’re all struggling with the same thing, we relish the rare sunny day in the city’s bustling outdoors.

Inner Tube, Inner Peace

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I’ve just walked my bike, Beyoncycle, with a flat rear tyre, up the hill from Battersea to Clapham, so already I’m not impressed. Because it’s my lunch break I’m in a rush, and in Evans, a cycle shop where no one seems to care what you are, cyclist or customer or otherwise. But on the phone they told me they had the inner tube I need, so here I am.

A man, wearing an Evans T-shirt and the same expression as my brother’s when being talked at by our parents, asks me what I need, glances at my bike, and hands an inner tube off to someone else. This someone else has a “trainee” badge and a permanent look of confusion.

“Is this all you need?”

“Uh, what size is that? I’m not sure that’s right.”

He glances, for the first time, at the small black box in his hand.

“700 x 18-23cm?”

I don’t know as much as I should about my bike, considering I cycle at least 18 miles a day, back and forth between Hackney, which is littered with chicken bones, and Battersea, which is one ginormous construction site. Well ok, I don’t know anything, but I do know how to read the numbers on the side of my tyre.

“That isn’t correct.”

He looks at the inner tube box, then me, then back at the box.

“Uh…”

“Is there someone you can ask?” I try to use my most encouraging tone of voice, the way I used to talk to my dog Ninja during thunderstorms, but my patience is wearing thin. And he doesn’t have Ninja’s eyes, or her imagination.

The man who had guessed my inner tube size in the first place pops back up, and actually looks at my tyre this time. “Nah, we don’t have it,” he says, shrugging. He doesn’t look at me. He walks away.

I grunt angrily and exit the store. I know there is another cycle shop just across the road, Apex, but I had called them too and they didn’t have my inner tube, either. Not sure what to do, I think perhaps the man I spoke to on the phone will at least be receptive to my rantings on about the incompetencies of his local rivals.

When I walk through the door I’m met by a warm, bearded man in an orange polo shirt. Flustered, I don’t even know how to begin, but he says hello like he’s been expecting me. “You called about an inner tube!”

“I did have one, after all,” he says, plucking a small box from the shelf. He wheels Beyoncycle to the back, where they don’t mind changing it for me because I’m not confident enough to do it myself. “Ten minutes!”

“You’re not the first person to say that,” he responds when I tell him how awful my experience was across the road. “They had one good person work there, ever. He works for us now!”

At 5:30pm I’m glad I’m able to cycle home, rather than abandoning my bike at work and getting on the tube, with all the other sweaty, dissatisfied commuters. I see a man in a navy blue suit on a Dutch city bicycle run a red light and get pulled over by two policemen on horses. And then on the final stretch home I find myself trying to keep up with a man who has a slice of pepperoni pizza tattooed on his right calf and think, that’s good motivation, I wonder if he did that intentionally? There’s so much you see when flying through the city streets. I’m glad I’m a cyclist.

Apex Cycles
40-42 Clapham High St, London SW4 7UR
020 7622 1334
info@apexcycles.com

Beside the Seaside

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“This is exactly what I wanted from a restaurant tonight,” I’m saying, looking around us. The tablecloth is red and white checked, brick walls lead up to wooden rafters, and the dimmed lights leave work for the candles on each table; it could be the backdrop for a rom com date scene. (Emphasis on the ‘com’ part of the equation, as the four year old at the next table begins a dinner-long tantrum.) I’m glad– Whitstable Oyster Company was not our first choice, but the Sportsman books up 6 months in advance, Salt Marsh was closed for a private function, and Birdies had no space for us.

On Friday Sam picked me up from work on his motorcycle, and we zoomed down the A2 to Whitstable, just over an hour east of London. It was the end of the summer, and we felt like getting away.

“Does the mackerel have bones?” I ask the waiter, suspiciously. “Yes,” she replies.

“And the skate?”

“Yes, but it’s really easy, I promise.”

“Ok, I trust you,” I say, feeling guilty for being the lazy landlubber who hates to work for her food. Sam, probably on a high from conquering his first oyster earlier in the day, has no such qualms, and confidently orders the whole plaice. “It’s going to have the head,” I say, making a face.

We had spent the day wandering between cafes and pubs, drinking oyster stout on the beach and then shimmying up to the four-person counter in Wheelers for fresh seafood. It may have been around since 1856, but Wheelers Oyster Bar is almost knowingly timeless; it’s easy to imagine the pink and blue storefront rolling its eyes at the news that Pantone has picked Rose Quartz and Serenity as the joint 2016 colours of the year.

“I’m so happy right now,” I say to Sam.

“Here?”

“Here, yes, but right now. Everything is just beginning.” We just reached the one year countdown to our wedding; I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching about the direction of my career and have, for the hundredth time, decided to push the fear aside and act instead. I worry that I am not good enough at work. Sam is good at ensuring me otherwise: There’s loads of stuff about how women only apply for jobs they think they’re capable of, whereas men apply for senior positions because they just think they can, he Whatsapps me on Friday. I don’t want to be a victim of the confidence gap. I want to be a woman of Beyoncé strength and Sara Blakely smarts.

“Ok, I think I’m bored now,” I say on our way back to the Airbnb, a charming cottage once home to William Somerset Maugham. “I’ve really enjoyed today, but I’m glad we live in London.” It’s just gone 10pm and a couple in front of us have stumbled out of a pub playing 90s anthems and straight into an Indian takeaway.

“Well,” Sam replies, matter-of-factly, “then it was a perfect weekend away.”

Tiny Dancer

3Acts1-1200Ira Glass is diminutive, so small I can squeeze him between my thumb and my forefinger. His face has become entirely his trademark glasses. “Sorry about the seats,” I whisper to Sam. We’re in the very last row of the Royal Festival Hall, which seats 2,500. The show begins in darkness and with words, as a male and a female voice discuss whether to begin with talk or dance. Talk has obviously won out, following, it seems, a trend begun in ancient texts with ‘Let there be light.’ And then there is light; mid-stage sits a tiny red velvet curtain, self-suspended within an arch; show business made a prop within the actual thing.

We love proximity to show business– even nosebleed proximity– and we’ve come to see what sort this is, what Ira Glass has cooked up with Monica Bill Barnes, who also directed and choreographed, and Anna Bass in “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host”. Sam and I are big fans of Glass’s radio show, This American Life, which is a major reason we have so many internet radios in our one-bedroom flat.

“You’re very English,” Sam will say to me, thick with surprise, every so often. I think he does it just to elicit my response, preordained: “Because I am!” I have an American passport, a British one, and an accent that’s somewhere in between (“Are you from Singapore?” I was once asked in a meeting, “It’s just that you sound… international.”) I’ve spent half my life in the US and I still don’t understand Stand Your Ground laws, American football or what “quarter of” means when telling time, but then there are a heap of American things that make perfect sense: peanut butter, and The New Yorker, and NPR.

I’ll meet you at Yo! Sushi, Sam WhatsApps me before the show. We’re both cycling to the South Bank, albeit from opposite directions. When I get there Sam already has a seat at the counter, and a beer. “There was a family on the Cycle Superhighway,” he says, exasperated. “A four year-old in rush hour traffic! No one could get by!”

Towards the end of the show, Glass turns his attention to marriage. “You take their hand and walk towards a future you hope is just going to appear out of the mist,” he says, describing the decision to spend the rest of your life with one person, when you don’t know what the rest of your life is going to be. Recordings of Alain de Botton on the subject follow, filling the theatre with tips like ‘lower your expectations,’ or, that’s how we remember it. “It’s ok,” I say later, as we stalk around the flat, trying to sneak up on one another, which culminates in Sam striking an elaborate pose and my pretending to commit his likeness to canvas, “I don’t have expectations anyway.”