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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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain