Richard Askwith's popularising first book 'Feet in The Clouds' was my introduction to the venerable history of fell running. I read that book - and then I read it again - and so cemented my compulsion with what Mike Cudahy called "the magic and the joy" of running off road, in the hills and out in what passes for a wilderness in the UK.
Despite this, my attempts at running in the hills were not as Askwith described. If anything, my running life reflected my personal life at the time, which was frequently a life of failure and collapse.
His book filled my mind with the names of runners that I tried and failed to emulate - Bland, Naylor, Helene Diamantides, Stuart, Holmes to name a few. Names from the sports past too, like Bill's Teasdale and Smith, and George Brass. Somewhere in the online fell running communities web presence, I read a name that didn't need an introduction - Boff Whalley.
|Chumbawamba, back when they were|
Oh, I exclaimed at the time.
I'd managed to avoid hearing any Chumbawamba music since getting into punk in late 1986. Y'now, 'Picture's Of Starving Children...' and 'Never Mind the Ballots', but had managed to have my mind cast fully into doubt by my copy of "English Rebel Songs", on 10" vinyl, which I can just about appreciate today, listening to it now as I type.
But back then, in the days of newcastle brown, the Brewery Tap and thrash at the Talbot Hotel? Get away! If it didn't sound like Doom it wasn't getting played.
I did go and see them a few years later. I went to Wolverhampton in the back of a hunt sabs van in 1993. Did they play with Gunshot? To be honest, I was paying more attention to The Girl in the van I’d fancied since a bizarre incident at school with some hair gel behind the library, some ten years earlier.
I recall getting a ‘ticking off’ for reading Threat By Example at the nightclub after the gig - by this time it was obvious that The Girl was more interested in my friend - by someone I'd swear was Alice Nutter for years afterwards.
Probably wasn't though.
And then of course, they had their hit record in the hopeful year of 1997, and we all shouted sell out! once again, as some in the wider punk scene had been doing for a few years already.
It’s not exactly revelatory, twenty years later, to say that there was more to it than 'band makes famous/retires to island in the sun', and no amount of cash to anti capitalist organisations – Indymedia, for instance, or groups monitoring the worst practices of corporations - could atone for the heresy of the act in the eyes of the holier-than-thou or those with no skin in the game. Where would punk rock be without a little seppuku or pedantic moralising, I ask from my vantage point on Mount Hindsight. Who knows. It's a post-modern, post-structuralist world, twenty years later - does anyone care anymore?
So it was strangely satisfying to read Richard Askwith endorse Boff's book, which suggests that ‘Run Wild’, written in 2012, is “inspiring, wise, entertaining, moving, readable and incredibly timely.”
Preamble upon introduction upon preamble later, here's an interview I've done with Boff - fell runner, actor, writer. Ex- of anarcho-pop band Chumbawamba, currently of Commoners Choir, and many other things you can read about at his website
Enjoy the interview.
Me: Supposedly, there is a difference between a ‘runner’and ‘a jogger’. I suppose there is some truth to that. When did you first consider yourself a runner (and maybe you don’t?), and did you notice a transition from jogging to a more structured form of exercise?
Boff: It’s not about speed, is it? It’s how you define yourself, or something. Is it “I’m taking this seriously now...”. Or maybe it’s when you stop wearing the trainers you wear to the pub and buy some proper running shoes. I think I jogged for some months when I decided to run a marathon in the early 1980s. Then I think as soon as I started to run off-road in the late 1980s I was running, not jogging – mainly because the person who introduced me to fell running wouldn’t have tolerated jogging.
Me: Do you actively train, or do you just cover miles, letting the ground dictate your pace? Have you set goals for this year, and do you have an off-season?
Where is the most interesting place you have run? Or is that unimportant to you and why?
Boff: Yes I actively train but within that I’m really just enjoying myself, sometimes I run hard and sometimes I just take it easy. What I’ve stopped doing as I’ve got older is the proper speed-training, track training, etc. I still do hill reps, but just when I fancy it. And fast-and-slows, occasionally I’ll break into a few of those!
I don’t have any goals for the year other than to keep enjoying my running.
The most interesting place I’ve run is a really hard question to answer – there are so many beautiful places, even within Yorkshire – I love the landscape with bits of ruined industrialisation, I love the history of the Calder Valley (Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge), its poets and weather and rebels and radicals in the past. I love the big Scottish mountains, the really rough rocky climbs. I love the Lake District... running alone in the moonlight up near Fairfield in the snow. I love the rough descent off Burnsall fell, jumping the wall into the bottom fields. I love runs with other people that are just long conversations with paths and miles rolling by. Sometimes I go for long runs with my partner Casey and we just basically natter for a couple of hours whilst roaming around the Yorkshire Dales, getting muddy and stopping occasionally to look at a map or cross a river.
Me: Have you ever decided to skip a gig or other event because of running?
Boff:My old running friend Geoff Reid once told me you should never watch a sport when you could be playing a sport. I feel guilty about this sometimes if I skip a good run or race to go to the football match! I’ve missed lots of gigs because of fell racing though. When I was running competitively for Pudsey & Bramley I would sacrifice almost anything to travel and race with the team in the Lakes, Scotland, Wales etc.
Me and Danbert, who was also in the band and also ran the fells, once missed a couple of rehearsal days in the USA at the beginning of a tour of the West coast of America so we could run the Ben Nevis race. It was a crucial championship decider and we desperately wanted to do it. The rest of the band were very accommodating. We ran the Ben, jumped in a car and drove like mad to Manchester airport for the flight. By the time we got to San Francisco my legs had practically locked, I remember hobbling down the plane steps, backwards.
Me: I hated sport after the age of eleven, and when I discovered punk I realized others did too and I wasn’t the only punching bag in school. I was a punk weirdo, nobodies easy target and proud of it. That anti sport empathy sat really well with me for about 15 years before I turned old and needed to sort my health out. Running is seen as a solo undertaking, unless you compete, or run with a club, and in fact some of us enjoy the solitude of cross-country running more than anything else. Punk on the other hand claims to be a community. So, if punx hate sports and love the scene, why do we run? What draws us away from excessive substance use and late nights?
Boff: Well I totally understand what you mean but I’m not like that – I’ve always loved sport. Within the band we were always doing bits of sport here and there and always watched it. I had this conversation with Ian McKaye, who was in Leeds doing some recording with Henry Rollins. We were making an album at the time called ‘101 Songs About Sport’. Maybe around 1987 or 1988. We’d heard that Napalm Death were doing a 100-song album so we decided to do an album with 101 songs. All about sport. We had lots of guest vocalists and players and writers. Mekons, Dick Lucas, The Ex etc. Anyway we met up with Ian and asked him if he would write a lyric for the album. He point-blank refused, saying that where he came from it was jocks v punks, the sporty men at college hated the artists, you had to choose sides early on; so he hated sport, saw it only as something macho and competitive. Fair enough. But I reckon there’s an incredible match between punk and fell running, in the sense of wildness and escaping boundaries and finding your own way. In the sense of being adventurous and wanting to find out about the world. When I first started fell running it was through seeing a Leeds punk (Gary Devine) at gigs, once notoriously scrapping with riot police at a Conflict gig, then the next day running up hills wearing tights and studded shoes. The two things made sense together, and still do to me. Do you remember the Alf Tupper character in Victor comic? He’s very punk. I have him tattooed on my arm. His aim in life is to beat the toffs at running. Punk can be a very personal, solitary thing too, it’s not all about community – there’s the solitary outsider part of every punk’s make-up, isn’t there? Wanting to be different.
Me: Are you active in your local punk scene anymore? Do you see any contradictions between the wider portrayal of punk rockers (from the real to the imagined) and your participation in the often very corporate world of Running©? I’m thinking about global shoe brands with less than ethical histories and current practices that still don’t cut it, Global Positioning Systems with their origins in the US military, and possibly even racist and sexist coverage of professional running events.
Boff: I don’t know what my local punk scene would be, but I feel that punk informs everything I do. I run a choir and our slogan is ‘Putting the Oi in Choir’. Most of what I do, for theatre and music and bringing up kids and shopping etc is informed by punk; the sense of questioning everything and not getting boring. Or being bored. I still try to think about all that corporate stuff in terms of my running, but I’m not very loud about it. I won’t buy or wear Nike etc, I have shoes made by Walsh in Bolton, I really don’t like the branding of fell and trail running and I love how running can be a very low-cost sport, not very equipment-based. It makes me laugh seeing all the gadgets that you can get for running when really all you need are a pair of shoes and a rain jacket. I remember asking another fell runner when I first started, “what do I need to buy for a race?” and he said, “a bumbag and a Mars bar.” I got involved with the Pudsey & Bramley club when they had an unspoken ethos of scruffy belligerence and this was reflected in the tatty vests!
Me: Do you keep a running diary to complement your training? Have you ever logged the miles on your running shoes?
Boff: I’ve never kept a running diary or logged running miles. When I first started I wrote down race results but after about a couple of years I realised that the times were pretty irrelevant, it all depended on weather and underfoot conditions etc so I stopped doing it. I admire people who are keen enough to do all that, I’m just basically disorganised.
Me: Do you listen to music when you run or do you prefer the flow of sensation that seems to remove the need for constant sensory input from less natural sources? I find I can’t hold too many ideas in my mind, but maybe that’s because the terrain I run on is generally rough. Maybe it’s different if you run on smooth surfaces?
Boff: I never listen to music when I run. I love the idea (especially in today’s non-stop digital age) of being out of the house, in a forest or on a moor, no screens or bleeps or electronics. Stopping and looking around and realising that it’s just me and the earth. Feeling like someone could have had this same feeling any time in the past 1000 years, on these same moortops.
Me: We sometimes see footage of Boris Johnson running with his security detail. Have you seen it? Do you think he is a jogger? Not as in does he run or even jog, but do you think he is posing for the cameras?
Boff: I think he probably is a jogger, deluding himself that running along a London street for twenty minutes gives him some sort of old-school testosterone-fuelled sense of power. He’s a despicable man. I imagine him running along giving wide berth to all the homeless people on the streets.
Me: I would like to see him running for his life sometime, preferably from hungry wild dogs. Fun Question: are there any jogging politicians, past or present, you’d like to see in similar straits?
Boff: There’s a great photograph somewhere of John Prescott opening a bike lane or something in Hull, balanced on a bicycle that he clearly has no idea how to ride, wearing a cycling helmet that’s about five sizes too small for his huge head. Like half a peanut shell on a coconut. Maybe all politicians should go running more so we can see how stupid they look when reduced to such normal activities. There’s a great film too of Theresa May walking along a London street and getting her high heel stuck in a pavement crack. I imagine she’d look pretty spectacularly awkward trying to run up and down Burnsall Fell. Bring it on!
There you go. Thanks to Boff for the answers and the insight, and the anarchy.
Footnote: I have run this week - I've done about a dozen easy miles and used KT tape. It works.
This Gunshot record is immense!