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My exercise is limited to bottle-opening; it’s safer that way

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

I am in the pub with a group of people I mostly do not know very well and I am preoccupied, my mind very much elsewhere, for reasons we’ll get to, and someone starts talking about spinning, and what music to listen to while doing it. How sweet, I think, is spinning having a revival, like knitting a few years ago? (I wonder what happened to that.) I think of demure ladies with wimples, Ariadne, and Gretchen, abandoned by Faust. And . . . well, at this point the parade of mental images associated with spinning comes to a halt but these are fine to be getting on with.

It turns out that this spinning is actually an innocuous name for a terrible thing: exercise. Specifically, indoor exercise bikes, which can be modified in order to place differing strains on differing parts of the body. Hmm. I would appear to have fallen into the company of people who go to the gym.

Silent screams

Although a sudden fierce craving asserts itself as this sinks in, I decide it would be a little rude to step out for a cigarette at exactly that point, for by this time the conversation has my full attention. That is, I am both taking it in, as I am always up for learning about new experiences and modes of living, and also screaming, internally, in horror.

I think you will, if you follow my movements closely for the rest of my life, have more chance of finding me in a prison than you will in a gym. I remember gymnasia, which is what they were still occasionally called when I had no say in the matter, as places of punishment, stale sweat and humiliation, where stocky ex-services martinets would take evidence of physical weakness or malcoordination as symptoms of moral degradation. And then feel their testicles on the sly. Fuck them.

I do occasionally take exercise: a longish walk every now and then, a few miles on a Boris Bike (although as the charges for them have doubled this month – doubled! – I think I will be saying bye-bye to them in 2013) and even the odd desultory go with the dumb-bells, although my use of these has lapsed entirely of late; no point in having beefy arms unless one is planning on wielding a cricket bat (I also find that, as a rough and ready rule, there is an inverse correlation between the muscled thickness of the upper arm and intelligence and sensitivity to the feelings of others).

But a gym? All the technological advances in the world cannot make that pain and stench and shame go away. They’re also dangerous. I knew someone who collapsed and died while running to the gym. And if you think that’s an invention or poor joke on my part, it is not. So, largely, as long as I have enough strength in me to operate a corkscrew, that’s good enough for me.

And so, as this thought strikes me, I am brought back by a commodius vicus of recirculation to what had been preoccupying me in the first place: the injury to my mother mentioned last week. She is, in short, now in a state where she would be unable to operate a corkscrew; not that she would need one as much or as often as I would.

I will not bore you week after week with this, but heavens, it doesn’t half take up the thoughts. This does not have the existential pain of, say, heartbreak but one suddenly becomes permanently aware of human frailty and the capriciousness of fate. Also I am, as I frequently assure my parents in my monthly requests for cash, very fond of them, but it is all very well being fond of them at a distance; what counts is looking after them when things have gone horribly wrong. And they have gone wrong in an unexpected fashion. One had always expected the matriarch to be more hale than the patriarch, but sod’s law has to operate here as well as everywhere else. That the cat, of which the patriarch is inordinately fond, is going to have to be put down with me by his side tomorrow is a particularly unpleasant cherry on the cake.

Bright side

Well, things could be worse. She could have broken her hip, she could have been grossly mistreated at the Royal Free (I have heard some horror stories since) or . . . well, anyway. I say no more about what could have happened.

Because, as I contemplate the way that what started out as quite a good year turned into what might politely be called an omnishambles and impolitely called – sensitive readers, look away – a clusterfuck, it occurs to me that there is another image to do with spinning at the back of the memory banks, and that is of the Norns, weaving our destinies at the foot of Yggdrasil. It’s still better than going to the gym, though.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite