The Running Author/Guitarist

Wham! The ZX Spectrum, The Miners’ Strike, Atari, Neil Kinnock stumbling on a beach… Who remembers the 1980’s? It was a peculiar decade – one of transition driven by Thatcher’s profit- and efficiency-driven government, often at the expense of culture, tradition and community. I also remember the ascent into the public consciousness of the marathon. Twenty six miles (and a touch more, as if that weren’t enough) was a distance which held mythical status. It was a domain ruled by the elite, or the insane, depending on how you looked at it, yet this was all to change. More-or-less overnight, the marathon challenge was thrown open to the masses.

En route. It hurst quite a lot actually.

Television viewers – particularly a young budding guitarist in South Wales – became transfixed by the sight of thousands upon thousands of ordinary people pounding the streets of London in a bid to earn the ultimate badge of athletic honour. For many, the only run they had undertaken in the previous 10 years had been a 100-yard sprint to the chippy to purchase the last battered sausage of the evening. Suddenly, every man and his dog identified himself as a sporting giant, participating in endurance runs across the UK. As our country’s leaders had yet to recognise the money-making potential of what we now call ‘Health and Safety’, people were allowed to act with impetuous freedom, and to accept the consequences. Participants indulged in ever-more bizarre stunts: running in fancy dress, running backwards, three-legged marathon running, often with little or no training. Cardiff, the home of the aforementioned young budding guitarist, also got in on the act. Within a few weeks I had made a decision: I was going to run a marathon. I was fourteen years old.

A battered sausage, for those who don’t know…

I have always had an obsessive personality. Perhaps my temperament is particularly suited to the necessary repetition required to become genuinely technically proficient at the guitar. I’m a sucker for a hero. When at music college, I’d enjoy the daily ritual of arriving early in the cell-like practice rooms in order to perform a 45-minute cycle of scales in all keys, using every possible right-hand combination, all to the steady beep of a metronome which would be increased in speed by one beat per minute each week. As well as developing my finger dexterity, I felt heroic. I suspect there was an endorphin release going on somewhere and I soon became a guitar-nerd of epic proportions. So, the fourteen-year old guitar player started running. I was rubbish at sport in school. We played rugby of course, and my only redeeming quality was an unquestioning willingness to leap onto a pile of writhing teenagers in pursuit of a ball – even if said ball had departed the mass of limbs some time earlier. Personal injury was a likely outcome; in fact, to be unsullied and uninjured was a disappointment. We wanted to be heroes. The quantity of mud, and hopefully blood, sported by our clothing at the end of a match was a measure of contribution to the collective effort. I recall rolling in a filthy puddle in the dying moments of a match, some fifty yards from the action, on at least three occasions in order to be recognised as a warrior. I had no idea of the score; the aim was hero-points. As the months went by, I ran and ran, usually every other day. I did this alone and without really discussing it with anyone. The first inkling of a sense of payback came during the school’s cross-country competition. In previous years, my friends and I had retired to a pal’s house conveniently placed a moment’s stroll from the school gate during timed, competitive runs. There, we spent an agreeable afternoon playing cards and drinking Panda Pops fizzy drinks before joining the returning party in an unsuspiciously mundane mid-pack position so as not to draw attention to ourselves. I believe we poured water over our heads and sprinted the home straight to imitate a degree of physical exertion. In early 1984 though, I was up for it. I recall the look on the PE teacher’s face when I can around the corner in 5th place – out of a field of about 90. He was nearly as shocked as I was.

My medal from 1984, in the days before Health and Safety

I then made the somewhat rash decision to enter the Western Mail Marathon, held on September 9th 1984. In those days, one popped a cheque or postal order in the post and a few days later, a shiny number came back, complete with safety pins. I still have mine in our attic in France. I was fifteen years old when I set off from Cardiff City Centre. Incidentally, the same PE teacher was also an entrant. I didn’t bump into him. I can remember surprisingly little about the race. With no little discomfort, I recall running alongside Jimmy Saville for a couple of miles. He seemed like such a great guy and judging by the cheers and whoops of the watching crowd, most of the world agreed with me. How powerful is hindsight… I recall feeling utterly dreadful at about 22 miles but I kept running – never once resorting to walking – and finished the course in a respectable 4 hours and 8 minutes. I still have my medal in a case which was imprinted with the date, my name and the time.

Can’t believe I ran this – looks like the dark ages.

As the years passed, I continued running half marathons, 10km races and others. My late father dutifully and uncomplaining me drove me around the country leaving me to pound the roads as he somehow occupied himself for a few hours before returning his panting, stiff and sweaty offspring to the bath back in Cardiff. It was in 1992 that I entered music college. I had worked for five years and experienced family life. My son Matt was born but my relationship with his mum ended. My success in gaining a conservatoire place was vitally important for my self-esteem, as well as my future career. I ended up spending 18 years there; firstly as an undergraduate, then as a postgraduate before gaining employment in the Junior, Academic and Guitar Departments. My running days had more or less disappeared but the discipline instilled in those youthful road-pounding days remained.

Me in my Autism Initiatives vest, looking surprisingly camp.

So how can endurance sport help the classical guitarist? Firstly, there is the physiological aspect. Guitarists spend hours upon hours in classical position. This involves placing the body in a low, seated position with the left leg raised about seven or eight inches to lift the instrument. The position places considerable strain on the lower back and injuries were, and remain, commonplace. Self-medicating, beer, painkillers and soft drugs are ‘solutions’ I’ve witnessed being employed by players wishing to overcome their difficulties. More thoughtful techniques employed include stretching and The Alexander Technique. I’ve come to the conclusion though that most guitarists are simply unfit. Running keeps the body strong, supple and active. It is a powerful antidote to the fixed, seated posture in which we spend countless hours. Equally interesting though are the mental benefits guitarists can gain from the discipline of endurance running. A practice session can be a hard slog. Non-guitarists imagine ‘practice’ being the act of ambling to a field full of summer flowers, complete with obliging cooing partner, and strumming a few tunes in a breeze, assured of certain adulation from the masses. In reality, one is often in a small room slogging through repetition exercises which sound like a cow being tormented. Such acts are necessary if one is to truly do justice to great repertoire, such as that by J S Bach and his contemporaries. A condition from which I suffered extensively as a guitarist was what I named ‘Last Lap Syndrome’ (©Dan Jones 2019). In this, I would be performing a challenging work, such as Britten’s Nocturnal, The Aranjuez Concerto or a Bach fugue and, after perhaps half an hour of intense concentration, the final page of black dots would arrive. Right in cue, a voice would enter m head saying such things as ‘Nearly there!’ or ‘OK, here comes that tricky coda’, or even ‘Man, I am looking forward to that post-gig beer BIGTIME’. Of course, the consequence would be musical disintegration as the mind wondered. The focus on the immediate note being played was lost and the magic could be extinguished like a burning match popped into a pint.

Classical guitar posture –
about as natural as Irn-Bru.

How on earth does this relate to endurance running? Well, despite being a reasonably mature and rational adult, I made the somewhat questionable decision to run another marathon this year. I have just reached a significant birthday (half-century, not out) and being unable to afford neither a sports car, nor a powerful motorbike, I rashly entered The Dublin Marathon in response to the callings of my mid-life crisis. My son, Matthew, also a keen runner, entered as well. We made a pact to stick together in the likely event of me slowing down in the later stages. I decided to publically announce an ambition to beat the time I set in my youthful years. Oh dear. My training regime was strict and disciplined. I had no problem with that. As the months passed, I decided to attempt my first major run – a distance of about 18 miles. All was going swimmingly until mile 17. I suddenly felt like death. In fact, if death really feels like that, I want to live forever. I staggered home and was unable to mount the ladder-like staircase at the entrance to our flat. My concerned family watched on as I used my arms to drag myself up to the landing, like a Gore-Tex clad Day-Glo slug, before lying inert on the bathroom floor for some hours.

Glory! Heroes again! Matt, me and a random photo-bomber who surreally identified himself on Instagram!

Predictably, I was worried. After some reflection on the incident, I decided to fight fire with fire (and energy gels) and set off on another big run – this time 19 miles. On this occasion, the agony kicked in at 18 miles. I kept on upping the distance and, time and time again, I would experience near-collapse on the last lap. I began to wonder. Was I experiencing a kind of physical breakdown, not only because I was physically spent (which I truly was) but because I was mentally giving permission to my body to cease functioning a little too early? I scoured podcasts on the topic and to my amazement, discovered that this is a known phenomenon. In endurance races, athletes commonly collapse yards from the line. It is believed that had the line not been present, they’d have been able to keep going. So, one Saturday night, I set out on my final big pre-marathon run – 21 miles – armed with more energy gels than a Kipling trifle factory. As I ran along the A912, approaching my village, I felt a familiar sense of near-panic. ‘Almost there… come on… you’ve got this…’ and noticed that I was actually trying to speed up to get this darn thing over and done with. I focused hard on my individual steps and realised that I didn’t feel so bad (relatively speaking). I found myself singing ‘Ten Green Bottles’ starting with a bottle count akin to that undertaken by a stock controller at a Heineken factory. The body has a strange ability to anticipate the resolution of a much-needed task before the ideal moment. If you are of a sensitive disposition, you may do well to turn away now as going to the toilet is another excellent example. Who has endured the experience of mildly needing a wee (or indeed, a Number 2) while walking home – not so much as to be desperate but to certainly feel discomfort – only to turn the key in the front door and the body to shout out ‘Yippee! We’re home! Let it go baby!’? One is obliged to indulge in an odd sprint-waddle to the bathroom, all the while praying one’s teenage daughter has completed her morning routine, and hurl oneself onto the lav, trousers having been discarded on the landing and ‘making it’ with micro-seconds to spare. Such events are clearly in the consciousness of the Dublin marathon-watching public as I saw at least ten supporters holding warning placards reading ‘Never trust a fart after twenty miles’. Humour or wisdom?

Matt and I taking a selfie on the start line. Man, this was going to be easy.

I had put such things down to middle-age, but it seems that the brain is releasing too early, just as the marathon runner collapses on the little mat with that big yellow clock ticking above them, only to be hoisted to his/her feet by well-meaning co-runners, and just as the guitarist completing the Gigue of a Bach suite mysteriously fluffs a few notes in the final cadenza of an otherwise flawless performance.  So on October 27th 2019, Matt and I completed the Dublin Marathon. How things have changed. We still had numbers attached with safety pins, but now a micro-chip was taped to the back so that my family back in Scotland could track me by GPS. My estimated finish time was fed to them (notably elongating as the race progressed) so that they could watch my moment of glory as we plunged over the finish line via a live YouTube feed. Bizarrely, as we were crossing, the producer decided to interview a spectator, there to support her husband who was running the race to honour their yet-to-be-born baby (she was pregnant). Despite such setbacks to my dangerously-swollen ego, I broke my youthful PB by 15 minutes completing the race in a respectable 3 hours and 53 minutes. Matt and I crossed the line together in a moment of true glory, arms aloft although he would clearly have broken 3 hours 30 had he gone full pelt. The moment was captured by a photographer and was emailed to me courtesy of facial recognition technology. I looked like a man who’d been trampled by a herd of Highland bulls but it was SO worth it. In the later stages, I felt truly dreadful, but my experience as a guitarist made me concentrate on the rhythm of my feet and the moment in hand. The incredible Dublin public were just wonderful – genuinely inspiring and encouraging. What an extraordinary city. It was magic. I was raising funds for Number 3 One Stop Shop in Perth and was supported by Perth Strathearn 200 Round Table who are giving an extraordinary gift to augment my total. Our Co-op in Bridge of Earn also hosted a collection pot into which the lovely community of our village chipped in most generously. Watch this space for a final total…

Me looking properly knackered. I’d like to tell you the camera caught me at a bad moment but I’d been looking like this for at least an hour.

I’ll be playing a number of concerts in Scotland in 2020. I’d love to see you there! Also, if you live in the Perth area, or in the Dordogne where I pass much of my time, drop me a message if you fancy going out for a run.

Took a while to get another but it feels good!

Dan is the author of Extracting Goats From Jean-Claude’s Kitchen, available from Amazon here.

Are You Trying to be Funny?…

Errr… well, yes actually.

It’s now several months since my first venture into travel/autobiography/comedy writing was published. Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is a humorous memoir of the seven years my family and I spent in a sleepy French village. The inhabitants were (and still are) a gloriously eccentric bunch and, along with their traditions and culture, I soon recognised that our experiences made for a rich vein of comic anecdote. This, combined with advice on how to successfully integrate into such a society, is the essence of Extracting Goats…

I am delighted, touched and flattered to say that I am the proud, and a little relieved, recipient of many reviews and messages (quotes from which are scattered around this article) indicating that a least a certain percentage of the population share my sense of humour. I confess that once Extracting Goats was published, I experienced many moments of anxiety; what if no-one else in the known world shared my humour? Was I ripping of the writers I idolise? Was I being offensive, or worse? I hope that some of the thoughts and tips outlined below will give you an insight into my method and thinking.

WRITE LIKE A JAZZER. It is important to clarify that I am a completely untrained writer. I am a professional guitarist and spent six years studying in a national conservatoire preparing for such a career. It struck me that there are thousands upon thousands of writers who have studied their craft to the same degree as I have studied nuances of ornamentation in the lute suites of J S Bach. That is scary. I recognise that my technique can never match that of a trained writer so I feel my approach is more like that of a jazz/rock musician. The analogy is a fair one. As I can also improvise at the guitar, I understand the different mind-sets that one adopts when creates in these two styles.

REMINICE. Make yourself laugh at the memories without analysis. I love recounting certain stories which still make me chuckle now, as I type. A favourite is one where I found myself trapped into pretending to be French at a wedding (it’s complex, read the book). I recall sitting at my laptop, tapping away fervently, emitting the occasional snort, like a baddie in a Bond movie entering the codes for a world-ending nuclear device. The experience was all about feeling. Any technical analysis came afterwards. I found it much easier – and far more pleasurable – to get the story on paper quickly and to refine later.

BE SINCERE. There are few things less funny than a writer or a speaker trying to be amusing. You have to believe in your material. Also cringe worthy are writers trying to catch the wave of a current style of humour, rather like a middle-aged politician saying ‘sick’ or ‘keep it real’. If your humour is dated, that’s OK. There will be readers within your own demographic who find dated humour funny too. If you doubt the validity of this point, ask your teenage daughter (or borrow someone else’s) to watch a 1980’s sitcom which you found side-splittingly hilarious. You may find that as you wipe away tears of mirth, your companion will be looking at the screen, ashen-faced and bemused.

HUMOUR HAS A VICTIM. WOULD YOU SAY IT TO THEIR FACE? I really believe in this statement. I dedicate a lot of page space to mocking the French fonctionnaire – which can be anyone in a position of power, such as a civil servant. Although I am pretty merciless in my observations, I took immense care to avoid stepping into the realms of bitterness and nastiness. An example is a story when I poke fun at a fonctionnaire who was a complete technophobe. I can honestly say that if he were sitting next to me now, I would say it all as written. I have tested this formula in real life. A number of my stories tease my ex-pat friends who have endured glorious failures in their attempts to learn the language or integrate. In the summer of 2019, I performed a number of concerts in the Dordogne where the pieces of music were punctuated by readings. It was such a joy to see my ‘victims’ in the audience with tears of laughter streaming down their faces. Many of them bought copies for their families and asked me to dedicate them to their pseudonyms.

AVOID BEING NASTY BY USING SELF-DEPRICATION. This one is, for me, the key to Extracting Goats. I soon realised that if I was going to poke fun at others, I had to be able to poke fun at myself. That is much funnier than just directing observations towards others. Let me give you an example. When Kirsty and I decided to open a cattery, I was obliged to take a three-day course in cat breeding. Now, you must understand that I had no interest in breeding cats – in fact, given that we were hosting other people’s cats for a fixed period of time, breeding was a definite no-no. The course was an exercise in box-ticking officialdom and it was both expensive and unnecessary. The easy course of action would have been to have mocked the lecturers and organisation forcing me to undertake the training but I soon realised that making myself the victim through recounting my attempts to memorise pages upon pages of biological information (in French) regarding illnesses and hereditary illnesses in pedigree cats was both funnier and supremely surreal.

Toilet humour… always a winner.

CHECK, BUT USE FRESH EYES. Once a story was written, I read it over and over again to undergo a process of refinement. I am only too aware that my results are imperfect but I gave it my all. After a while, I noticed that I was deleting or replacing a lot of material. Whereas it is good to be ruthless, one has to take care as a joke stops being funny after one has read it for the forty-seventh time. Consequently, I found myself reinstating gags which I had previously rejected. A good tool is to read your passages out loud to willing friends. I found this surprisingly nerve-racking. This is bizarre as I have, in my career, played a concerto to two thousand listeners with a symphony orchestra, but as this was a new venture, out of my comfort zone, it was challenging. Another really useful tool is the ‘speak’ facility on Word. Highlight a passage and find the ‘speak’ facility (Google it…) Your text will be read to you in an expressionless robotic style (which I actually found hilarious). It is great for analysing issues such as paragraph length, comic timing and basic errors such as word repetition. The final point is important here. I found myself reading what I wanted to see rather than what was on the page. Robo-voice lady just reads what’s there.

SET A LIMIT. I once sat at my computer for an hour agonising over whether the expression ‘I would rather place my own testicles in a blender’ was funnier than ‘I would rather place my own testicles in a coffee grinder’. That’s ridiculous. There is a moment when one has to walk away. Incidentally, I chose the coffee grinder.

FINALLY… in my experience, reality is much funnier than fiction, if we open our eyes to it. Be sincere, warm and open. You’ll struggle to please everyone but if you follow these principles, you’ll know that you’ve been true to yourself and what you are as a writer.

Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is available in paperback or Kindle editions here. Visit www.danjonesauthor.com or www.danjonesguitarist.com.

Dan will be performing as a guitarist and promoting Extracting Goats… at two forthcoming events in Scotland in September: SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 8th at Innerpeffray Library, Chapel and Heritage Trail from Midday. Please see: http://www.innerpeffraylibrary.co.uk/#&panel1-1

Dan and friends will be celebrating the launch of Extracting Goats… at Dunbarney and Forgandenny Parish Church Hall, Bridge of Earn, on Sunday September 15th from 2.30pm – 4.30pm. This will be a family day with music, readings, games for children and maybe even a crepe or two! All are welcome – entry free with a voluntary donation to Perth’s homelessness charities.

Book Launch Family Event! Bridge of Earn

Dear Friends,

Oh là là!!!

On SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 15th I will be celebrating the release of my book EXTRACTING GOATS FROM JEAN-CLAUDE’S KITCHEN with a launch party at THE CHURCH HALL from 2.30pm – 4.30pm.

This will be a family event so there will be outdoor games for children (because the weather will be glorious, right?), live music (with special contributions from Brig’s abundance of talent!), readings, drinks and crepes!

If you would like to check out EXTRACTING GOATS… it is stocked and supported by many of our splendid local businesses including The River Edge Lodges and The Co-op. I’d like to thank our village’s book club who have also read and discussed it. For you techy types, it is available in Paperback or Kindle edition at Amazon.

We will be asking for a voluntary donation at the event which will go to local homelessness charities chosen by the magnificent team at Dunbarney and Forgandenny Parish Church. Food, drinks, games and music are on me.

There is no need for a ticket or advanced booking – just come along and have a relaxed afternoon of fun, music, games and chat.

Thanks for reading – enjoy my little film of silliness and see you there! A bientôt!

Dan

Vegan 269 Perth, UK – Review

I’ve never written a restaurant review before so I thought I’d start on a smaller scale with a café. Since arriving in Scotland, la Famille Jones has found eating out a challenge. I recognise that different cultures have varied tastes but I find much of what is offered in the UK’s popular restaurants is heavy, stodgy and unhealthy. I also despair at the manner in which children are treated in restaurants and in particular, pubs. There is either a stark hostility to anyone under the age of 18 or places are set up to resemble a play factory ensuring that none of the skills children learn when taken to restaurants are acquired (conversation, appropriate behaviour, courtesy etc). We went to one ‘child-friendly’ pub recently and to my eternal horror and disbelief, TV screens had been set up at the end of each table – presumably to keep kids mute for the duration of the meal. If the ‘thinking’ is that children will be protected from the evils of alcohol, well, the strategy is clearly ineffective. Since arriving in Scotland, under-age youths have been responsible for countless acts of vandalism outside our flat, usually inspired by an illegal evening of drinking sweetened fortified wine (specially designed for those youthful tastes). ‘Menus’ for children remain pre-packaged mush, bland on the mouth and brain.

My curried courgette soup

But let us switch to a brighter note. Yesterday was Father’s Day and I really wanted to celebrate it with our children in a manner which would be good for our health, interesting on a culinary level, fairly-priced and respectful to the local economy. Vegan 269 in Perth ticks all of these boxes and much more. Let me clarify now, I am neither vegan nor vegetarian, although about 95% of my diet is non-meat as the ladyfolk Chez Jones are veggie. I love veggie food and Vegan 269’s menu shows that with a little love, creativity and passion, such food is exciting, tasty, generous and imaginative.

Kirsty had crushed avocado on sourdough toast. The avocado was seasoned beautifully and had a glorious, rich texture and a touch of heat with the flakes of chilli which ran through it. I had a bowl of curried courgette soup. The taste was deep, layered and full of warming curry notes. The texture was rich and creamy – this being achieved through skilful combinations of ingredients and cooking techniques rather than chucking in half a litre of heart-attack inducing coagulated cow juice. It was not hot – the cook recognised that ‘curry’ refers to layers of flavour rather than to what degree one’s head will be blown off. Extra bread (delicious home-baked) was offered with a smile – and gratefully accepted. Our children had traditional food – baked beans on toast and fruit breads – all locally sourced and organic.

Vegan chocolate brownie – amazing!

The drinks menu had a real rarity – grown up alcohol-free beverages that taste of something other than sugar or aspartame. I had blood orange soda, Kirsty a Kombucha (fermented tea which gives a strong, intense flavour) and Flo a sparkling rose water. For those who like the traditional cola, organic, responsibly-produced versions were available.

Avocado on home-made bread.

For dessert, I had a stunning rose and pistachio cake. All the ‘wet’ ingredients were non-dairy and nothing was lost in terms of deliciousness. Kirsty had a cheesecake where the base was created from dates. Stunning. The kids had peanut butter and chocolate brownies, again, with vegan-friendly, healthier base ingredients.

The prices were very good value – what price do we put on health and environmental responsibility? The staff, lovely – genuinely enthusiastic about their work and full of smiles. The place had plenty of kids present and books, as well as an art area was laid on for them.

Rose and pistachio cake (you can see someone had a nibble before I got my camera out!)

We need places like this to support local foodie businesses who care about quality. We need to move away from industrially-produced edible food items which slowly but surely suffocate the planet and induce many health problems. Let’s show our kids the alternatives.