He's a runner

Tom Ravenscroft tries to find the perfect songs to soundtrack a jog.

Due to me slightly overestimating how romantic it would be to spend the spring sofa-surfing at friends' houses, I am staying at my mum's a fair bit at the moment. Which means that I'm eating too much and not getting any exercise. So this week I decided to be a goddam man and go for my first ever run on a public road, taking an MP3 player with me, like in an advert. I now have a greater understanding of what makes good and bad running music, so here are my findings.

Feeling a little self-conscious, I set off with the oft-mentioned Burial and his new single "NYC" (Hyperdub) slowly building in my ears. It's not just beautiful but also a rather elegant thing; the beat sounds very much like the ticking of an old grandfather clock, with sparse female vocals over the top which feel like they may be coaxing you towards running to the end of time and ultimately death, albeit rather majestically. Listened to while on a run, it creates a strangely comforting sense of being alone. I suspect this also applies when standing still. Either way, I strongly advise that you try it.

After a brief stroll in order to catch my breath I put on Daniels-Deason Sacred Harp Singers and the track "Hallelujah", which features on the box set Roots n' Blues: the Retrospective 1925-1950 (Columbia). It at once transpires that this might be one of my favourite records of all time. Going back to my earlier point, it almost makes you look forward to an untimely death, just so you can have it played at your funeral. The song takes the form of a musical round, most of the sound, due to the age of the recording, is a not entirely unpleasant hiss. But the selection of voices in the song is mind-bogglingly moving, with a main chorus quiet in the background, overlaid with various elderly men at different pitches and a solitary, slightly shaken female voice sitting above them all. It is other-worldly and at the end of it I found myself standing still with my mouth open, staring at the sky. Not a great form of exercise but a nice way to pass the time.

Finally, a therapeutic mile or two later, as I had been travelling at an astonishingly slow speed, it was time to play some rock. I went for a track called "Like a French Assassin" by the Cosmonauts, who hail from California, and here's what happened: immediately, two US military helicopters starting flying above me at an unusually low level. I wasn't sure whether they were escorting me or weighing me up, but it did, I am fairly certain, hasten my pace. The first two minutes of the track are just guitars rocking out, building slowly in anticipation of the vocals. On the next bend, the words came in and I was met by two snakes bathing in the sun. On the following corner, a posse of five or six deer ran along with me briefly before bursting off into a nearby wood. I think one of them winked at me. Despite the lazy-sounding singer, the guitar kept me going as two men flew past on motorbikes and then a group of attractive girls in a convertible pulled over to make way for me. This, people, is the power of rock: great to run along to, but if you don't respect it, it will tear your arm off.

Tom Ravenscroft's radio show is broadcast on BBC 6 Music every Friday at 9pm

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This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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