Essays: The genuine jogger |
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The genuine jogger

DESPITE his penchant for spiritual uplift, President Carter has always seemed an improvement on his predecessors, but after last week’s jogging triumph you could be excused for wondering.

The BBC news programmes screened some telling lengths of American film devoted to the incident. The President was to be seen lumbering awkwardly along among hundreds of fitter men. The President was then to be seen in close-up, gasping like a tuna which had been on deck for several hours. There was a Secret Service man on each side of him, holding him up. Directional microphones caught what the Secret Service men were saying. ‘He’s not doing so well.’ ‘Doesn’t seem to be able ... to stand up.’

Here was the final proof that Carter, whatever else he might be, is not bogus. If he had the slightest knack for hokum he would not get into these fixes. He would have started his jog at the back of the field, run a hundred yards very slowly, swerved off the road and started talking to the reporters. He would have made a joke of it, and everybody would have loved him.

But he didn’t. He is a jogger by nature. Joggers are people who really believe that they can recapture their youth by taking exercise. The brutal facts suggest that unless you have never lost your youth, and have been taking exercise all the time, then trying to get fit will kill you as surely as a horse-kick to the heart. Open the back door of any squash court in London and the purple-faced corpses of executives come flopping out. Among Fleet Street journalists the death rate from jogging is like a novel by E. M. Forster. Not to accept growing old is the sign of a mis-spent life.

On the other hand, Wilde was certainly right about youth being wasted on the young. Most of us have to reach middle age before we start realising what we should have done with it. Emanating from Manchester, Something Else (BBC2) is a new ‘open door’ programme made by young people for young people, although not-so-young people are cordially invited to tune in. I tuned in, and immediately felt as old as Methuselah, as the hills, as the rocks on which I sat.

The studio was crammed with earnest young people for whom the Beatles were remote historical figures. Punk bands did their numbers, some of which were of real musical vigour, but none of which was any greater challenge to society than a wrecked telephone booth. Everybody present assumed automatically that Radio 1 had kept these bands off the air because of the challenge they offered to society. It seemed far more likely that Radio 1 had kept these bands off the air for the usual reason — i.e., that they sounded interesting.

A young person interviewed a member of the Manchester police force. ‘Constable, why do you pick on young people?’ It seems probable that young people in Manchester, especially if they are black, stand a good chance of being picked up on suss. Whether these particular interviewing techniques constituted a sound way of getting at the facts remained debatable. A day in the life of an abandoned young mother with two children was filmed in detail. It looked grim. ‘The money on the social is no good.’ But no questions were asked about how she came to be landed with two children while still a teenager. Presumably society was to blame.

Society is getting easier to blame all the time. The Labour Party Political Broadcast (BBC1 and 2) sounded convincing when it pointed out that Tory tax-cuts have benefited the rich, without any indication as yet that the rich plan to benefit the country by investing their gains. Neil Kinnock and Wendy Mantle did the talking. Kinnock is so effective on television that he is bound to be offered a measure of power in the course of time, so it will be instructive to see just how radical he can stay. In the interests of credibility, however, he should do something about his haircut. Take it from a fellow baldy, Neil: no matter how carefully you arrange those strands, the essential you shines through. Own up and you’ll feel better. Don’t be a jogger.

Panorama (BBC1) had a report on Cambodia, just to show us what politics is like in less favoured parts of the world. There is a case for believing that Cambodia has attained its present condition principally because of machinations on the part of more favoured parts of the world, but none of that detracts from the certainty that Pol Pot ranks high on the list of Great Bastards in History.

There was film of the Khmer Rouge’s now happily abandoned torture factory, where the torturers apparently kept a photographic record of everything they got up to, thereby revealing a metaphysical interest in agony which sorted ill with their materialist pretensions. Enough of these photographs were fleetingly on show to make you very glad that you weren’t seeing the rest, or the same ones longer.

Being a South East Asian is a tough life. The one thin consolation is that in some parts of the world animals are still treated worse. Bloody Ivory (BBC2) showed ivory hunters going about their business. It was immediately apparent that the average elephant is making a great mistake in being so large. If they were really as wise as they are cracked up to be, elephants would be the size of mice and able to run like cheetahs.

Ivory hunters sit around the fire all night toasting poison on to the tips of their arrows. The poison is drained off from a rich puff-adder soup, seasoned with anything else rotten that might be lying around the district. The completed missile is then fired into the elephant. There were suggestions that this takes some skill, but it looked no more difficult than hitting the door of a slowly moving barn.

The elephant takes about six months to die in agony. The highly trained ivory hunters track the animal to the scene of its death throes. Finding a dead elephant in open landscape is doubtless not easy, but you have to remember that these boys have been at it all their lives. The tusks are then hacked out and sent away to be converted into billiard balls and tasteless ornaments. A figure of $50,000 per pair of tusks was mentioned, although it seemed likely that only a proportion of this sum was received by the actual ivory hunters — about enough to buy them a new pair of shorts each.

Despite all the interviewer could do to screw things up, Frederick Ashton (BBC2) emerged from his birthday tribute sounding like the great man he is. The questions were fatuous, but his answers were pregnant with a lifetime’s experience. Old film of early creations was fascinating, but even more so was new film of Sir Frederick still at work. At seventy-five he still moves like a boy. But then staying supple is his profession, not some idle dream. No jogger he.

The Observer, 23rd September 1979
[ An edited version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]