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Twists in the tale on the Thames Path 100 and why football is bad for you

Plus: a date with gay marriage.

I was supposed to be running the Thames Path 100-mile race last weekend – the flattest, fastest, most straightforward, easiest event in the country at this distance, if you can use such an adjective about any event at this distance. That was before the flood warnings and the snow made large sections of the path unnavigable on foot. “Ultimately the level of danger is deemed too high where it is not possible to make the distinction between the bank and the river,” as the event rules adjudicated drily.

This was before the organisers curtailed the intended route at a sailing club somewhere near Cookham (for the revised route, runners retraced their steps up and down the Thames between Walton and Windsor to make up the missing miles). And it was before my ankle slipped first one way across the ice and then twisted another way through the mud, in a clear act of self-injury with intent to avoid service.

I pulled out before the race started and spent the first weekend for as long as I can remember without running.

Itchy feats

Three months ago there’d have been no question of my not continuing. I entered – and completed – 115 different running events in 2012. These ranged from a six-day, 156-mile, carry-your-own-gear stage race to a five-in-a-day schlep around southern England that started with a five-kilometre parkrun in east London in the morning and finished with a midnight half-marathon in Brighton that evening. My highest-placed finish was third and my lowest was third from last, when I became the 134th person, out of 262 starters, to cross the finishing line of the Lakeland 100. (Actually, the Ultra Tour of the Lake District, to give it its snottier title, is 105 miles but the organisers of these things start getting sloppy about distances once they’ve got you outside the marathon comfort zone.)

A “dnf” (did not finish) or “dns” (did not start – worse, really, because it means you never even tried) “dnemh” (did not enter my head) during my 2012 miles in 2012 challenge But then that was for charity (Freedom from Torture, TEACH Africa and Whizz-Kidz), and on the same weekend last year I was getting sunburnt in the Barcelona Marathon rather than trench foot on the Thames. I must admit that having not one but two excuses for pulling out – an injury and a revised course that blew my self-supporting race logistics out of the water – was too much of a temptation.

Crunch time again

So what do you do with the weekend when you’re not running? Well, Sunday-morning football used to have its attractions. I even have a dim memory, from 20 years ago, of organising what was probably the only New Statesman team ever to step out on that particular field of dreams. If my memory serves me correctly, we lost 2-1 to a “Rest of the Left” team that included David Miliband.

He hit the bar with a header from the edge of the box. I substituted myself after playing 20 minutes with a broken finger, incurred at the hands of police wielding riot shields at an Anti-Nazi League demo the previous weekend. I may have broken another one last weekend as a result of donning the goalkeeper’s jersey – but not the gloves – in a game of fivea- side at my local sports centre.

I’ll see if the swelling goes down when I’ve finished typing this notebook.

Little France in London

I still turn out for games of five-a-side; the big pitches demand too much recovery time, now that so many younger players seem to be taking up the game. Yet despite the best efforts of the coalition government, the days when I was a regular demonstration-goer are long gone. But I turned out for the march to save our local hospital – again – a couple of weeks ago. And I strolled along to join the counter-protesters at the London version of la Manif pour tous (“demonstration for all”) in Paris on Sunday opposing gay marriage.

With its pretty pink placards and its Godgiven certainty, la Manif has managed to get hundreds of thousands of protesters on to the streets of France but could pull only hundreds to Trafalgar Square. And the London organisers were so scared about participants going off-message (they’re “pro-family”, not “antigay”) that they banned them from bringing their own posters. “Just so you know, we have instructed our team of stewards to pull away any banner or visual . . . that is not in line with the guidelines,” they warned anyone thinking of attending.

We could be heroes

Before they decided to stick with the title of Alan Sillitoe’s original short story, the makers of Tony Richardson’s 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner had planned on calling it Rebel with a Cause, a reference to the iconic James Dean film of a few years earlier. Having obtained his borstal governor’s support for his running, and permission to leave the borstal to pursue it, Sillitoe’s antihero, Colin Smith, throws his big race by deliberately stopping just short of the finishing line and allowing the much slower, secondplaced runner to finish ahead of him.

Along with the comic-strip hero Alf Tupper, the “tough of the track” whose outlandish running exploits graced the pages of the Victor and the Rover for four decades, Smith offered a fictional working-class alternative to the real-life posh-boy running heroes such as Roger Bannister. Tupper, a welder with unfeasibly big biceps (for a middle-distance runner) and a predilection for fish and chips, made his contribution to the turmoil that was sweeping the world in 1968 by inviting three rivals who were flying out to the US from a nearby airport to take part in an invitation mile, where they broke the world record.

My own running ambitions fell somewhere between Tupper and Smith. I shouted Steve Ovett on against Sebastian Coe every time – who didn’t? And when a dark-skinned immigrant from Mogadishu won the Olympic 5,000 and 10,000 metres double gold for Britain in Hackney last year, I knew that sometimes real-life running can be even more amazing than fiction.

Steve Platt was editor of the New Statesman from 1991-96. He has been running ever since

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.