All About The Breath

Breathe in.

For me, it’s all about the breath. Everything is always all about the breath. From the moment it starts with a midwife slapping your arse to the moment it slips out with a final rattle, life is driven by a constant cycle of breath through your lungs. It’s not so much about the blood and the heart. Blood is just a means to carry air around the body and the heart is just a pump for the blood. No, breath is the real thing, as real as it gets.

Breathe out.

Blood is so obvious. Its red colour comes from the oxygen-rich haemoglobin it carries. We’re hyper-aware of the colour red as a result. We shouldn’t see red stuff leaking from our bodies. That’s our liquid breath oozing away. It’s a sign of danger. You see it and you have to act or you’re in deep, deep trouble.

Breathe in.

There’s also the sex thing, the vampire thing. I’ll never really understand the sexual attraction of vampires. Okay, there was Evil Leather Willow but that wasn’t about wanting her to drain me of my life’s blood: definitely not my blood. The twentieth century vampire iconography and mythology are completely bound up with sexuality and to be honest, I think it’s just to sell the films and books. Also, the trope is who wouldn’t want eternal youth and eternal beauty and health?

Breathe out

Your breath though? That gets ignored in most mythologies. God formed Adam from the dust of the ground. Adam only came alive when God breathed into his nostrils. There was none of that messing around with seminal fluid you get in some foundation mythologies in the Bible. I’m not aware of many stories about stealers of breath in the same way as I am about stealers of blood. The iconography just isn’t there in the same way as it is for those glamorous vampires and their blood-fixation.

Breathe in.

It started on the beach, late one night under clear St Andrews skies. Just one wee breath in, laden with cigarette smoke. I crashed the fag from her and the fag crashed into me. The smoke blessed my lungs and my head span and my heart sang and those far stars twinkled just out of reach. Their starlight had left them hundreds or thousands of years ago when nobody at all was walking along the West Sands. Nobody to breathe in the air coming off the sea. Nobody wanting to kiss those parted lips. Nobody watching the smoke slide from them and mix, dispersing out into the cold air and getting lost in the enormity of just one small narrow beach in one small narrow town stuck onto the side of Scotland. In the dark I couldn’t quite see the quizzical crinkle which would rumple the bridge of her nose when she didn’t understand what I was saying.

Breathe out.

Beer and fags. Life with beer and cigarettes is amazing. I miss the camaraderie of booze. Off for a drink after work, lighting up a cigarette as soon as I got out the door. Breathing in the fug of the pub at the entrance, that mix of hops and yeast, malt and barley, smoke and hope and then as the night wears on and the vision blurs, smoke and hopelessness. You can replace a fuckton of love with enough alcohol and nicotine until you can’t and you stumble off into the night and off down Spring Bank or Garratt Lane, racing your full bladder home and pretending to regret only that last pint.

Breathe in.

The cold days, when you huddle in groups round a Zippo, the cough is just one of those things. It’s so cold that you can’t light up from a match because your hands are shaking and you don’t know whether it’s really just the cold or because you need another drink. Head’s not that bad so it’s probably just the cold. Probably.

Breathe out.

One day, you breathe out and the next breath in won’t come. The air staggers into your lungs like a comedy drunk falling down a stairwell. It comes in fits and starts and it rattles and wheezes. It comes back up and out quick as a cough and a cough and cough. Your face is the same colour as the ash overflowing the tray on the broad arm of your single red armchair and enough still isn’t yet enough. The smoke rises silently from the end of the cigarette. It’s constant and changing at the same time, the patterns it makes in the still air of the quiet room a distraction from the book in your hand, the one that isn’t quite good enough to hold your attention.

Breathe in.

The doctor has prescribed you an inhaler for asthma and told you to stop smoking. You smell the cigarettes and mints on his breath and think “Aye, right.” He doesn’t quite meet your eye. Two puffs, twice a day and you’re sorted. The wee blue tube digs into your groin from its place in your pocket every time you sit down, as sharp a reminder as the wheeze it’s supposed to prevent. You’ve started on the jokes. You can’t afford a pension so you’re on the Marlboro plan: twenty a day for the next twenty years and you won’t fucking need a pension. And don’t tell me about the man-maths involved. I know, I know.

Breathe out.

Three inhalers now. Three different ones. The blue one and the brown one and the one with the disc thing to dispense it. Your morning wheezes have the same musical quality as a saw blade. Getting going in the morning with all the medication is like waking up a steam engine and takes barely less time. The day comes and you stub out the last cigarette, empty the ashtray into the bin and drop the empty fag packet on top. You keep the box of matches. It’s just opened, one or two strikes scarring the sandpaper side with black stripes.

Breathe in.

A month later there’s a note on the noticeboard in the gym for a beginners’ running group. You sign up. You miss the first week because you forget it’s happening but rock up on week 2 ahead of meeting your wife for a concert in town. You run around the edge of a football pitch for a bit, from corner flag to halfway line, walk from there to the next corner flag then sprint as hard as you can down behind the goal posts to the next corner and then repeating the process for three or four laps. Stretch, shower, change, into the car for the drive into town. It’s a bit difficult getting out of the car after 15 minutes but you totter off down Trinity Street to the concert in St John’s Chapel where the only seats left are in the boys’ choir stalls. You spend an hour folded into one with your knees round your ears and then cannot get up at the interval. You’re there for a while, wedged in by the pain in your legs. Physical exercise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but you’re back the next week and at least there isn’t a concert afterwards.

Breathe out.

Running on Coldham’s Common again. You find a rhythm between stride and breath and suddenly everything clicks and you want to go faster, go further, run for longer. There are people out there with you, the rest of the group. Breathe in for two strides, out for two. Stride out a bit more, pick up the pace, the grass goes past underfoot, and you feel the air as it begins to move more quickly past your face. Just for a few seconds, you’re running like you did when you were in the playground and you had to run because you had to be everywhere else, all at once and the world was so full of things you had to see and do!

Breathe in.

It’s race day. Gulp down your inhalers, your breakfast, pull on your running shoes and your new socks, bought special, and out the door. On the start line, your stomach a butterfly farm, you take deep breaths to calm yourself and then everybody goes off. Try to find your pace, hit that magic rhythm. The crowd around you thins as the race goes on. Some gasp and drop away and you overtake the ones who have overcooked the start. Two strides for every breath in and two for every breath out, up the hills and down again. Just concentrate on the next breath, on the next stride, on the next runner or landmark ahead and then forget about it as you pass. The next one is just there.

Breathe out.

Swimming is a thing now too. Proper face down in the water front crawl and everything. You can see your breath as you push it out, bubbling away with the blue tiles of the pool bottom gliding oh so slowly by beneath you. Your lungs burn with the effort and that panicky feeling comes when you can’t quite get the timing right and you try to hold your breath instead. That really doesn’t work but you can’t force your body to do what you know it must to get to the next breath. Swimming is a thing now too, but it’s an infuriating thing that just doesn’t flow like you think it should.

Breathe in.

There’s a spot on Therfield Heath. I think there’s a trig point there but there’s certainly a board giving you distances to the various landmarks you can see from there. So many miles to Wimpole Hall, for example, which you can just about make out at the end of its avenue in the distance on a clear, still day. I also think it’s optimistic when it gives the distance to Ely Cathedral. At that distance it’s going to be little more than a couple of dabs from Bob Ross’ brush. It’s a good spot to stop and catch your breath on a run around the heath. If you start in the car park you’ve been going for four or five minutes, mostly straight up a steep hill. It’s steep for our part of the world anyway. I stop to catch my breath, adjust my laces and then carry on. I can pretend to myself that I don’t need to, sometimes but I am always grateful for the excuse of the view.

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All The Books I Am Not Writing

“Write a book,” they say. They don’t say it often and there aren’t many of them but people tell me I should. Some people, anyway. Sometimes. I have tried from time to time to sit and write more than the 800 or so words I put into most of my blog posts and it has never amounted to anything. However, we’re living in strange times so here is a brief run down of all the books am I not currently writing.

Fitness After Fags

I had the idea for this a few years ago. It’s a physical fitness programme for people who have recently stopped smoking. I wrote the introduction and the first chapter on what you need before you start a fitness programme and the second one which was a Couch to 5k plan. I even bought a website domain for the project which I renew every year just in case I ever remove my thumb from my bum and get on with it. I thought I could get other coaches to write similar chapters on swimming, cycling, what to do in the gym and make it inclusive by pointing out you don’t need to become a sporting beast to become fitter when you stop smoking. Just walking, or gardening, or vacuuming the carpet can all count. Of course, that project runs into the sand again just after I renew the website domain every year because I am fundamentally feckless.

There are other books in the Fitness After… series I am not writing or editing too. You could have books on gaining or returning to fitness after heart attack or stroke, and a very timely book would be Fitness After Covid19. Books like this would need a lot of research on rehab after insult which I am just not qualified to do. I am not prepared to give poor quality advice to vulnerable people. However, it’s a good project to take forward at some point.

John Knox: a biography

I was brought up in Haddington, John Knox’s home town and there hasn’t been a major biography of John Knox for years now. It’s a surprise given his status in the history of the Scottish Reformation. I read a short biography of him about six of seven years ago which I thought was interesting but far too brief. So, given our common background in East Lothian, I am the ideal person not to be writing a book on Knox’s life. I don’t think he would approve of me at all – a former Papist and apostate, and to be honest I’m not a huge fan of him in return. At least I’m not writing a hagiography. Or I’m not writing what wouldn’t be a hagiography. It’s easy to lose track of the progression of senses in that sentence.

A brief aside – when Pope John Paul II came to Scotland, a group of us went to hear Mass at Murrayfield. There were buses from schools all over Scotland. When we returned to it at the end of the day, the bus driver had placed a huge sign in the front of the bus saying KNOX ACADEMY. Just as well everyone else was on their best behaviour. I was fully expecting it to be covered in eggs or for bricks to crash through the windows.

Judas Iscariot: 2000 Years of Excuses

Eve is probably the most put-upon figure in the Bible. She is excuse for thousands of years of misogyny. Judas probably comes second. I never understood the loathing for him. His role in the Passion is as vital as Jesus’. I’ve never really understood the Biblical justification for anti-Semitism. Even 1,600 years ago the notion of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus must have been bizarre since anyone involved was long dead. Poor Judas paid an awful price for his role in the capture of his friend. What happened after the most infamous kiss in history was not up to him. For his name to be attached to betrayal for the next 2,000 years appalls me. I don’t know whether the stories of the Judas goat are true. I hope they aren’t for all sorts of reasons.

I was once sitting towards the back of the top deck of a nearly empty number 16 bus, travelling through Morningside. It was a lovely, sunny day, about this time of year. I was sitting minding my own business, nose in a book, mind on walkabout, when I became aware that the bloke in the seat just ahead of me was muttering under his breath. “Judas,” he was saying, “Judas, Judas.” I looked up just as he turned in his seat. His eyes were unfocussed blue and his dark hair was longer than mine, his beard even stragglier. “Judas. You killed me, Judas. You killed me.” There is not a lot you can say in reply to that, not when the person is a complete stranger. The bell rang and cracked the moment. The bus slowed for the next stop. The man turned round a moment, and a different man turned back. “Oh, this is me. Cheerio.” I watched his head drop down the stairwell and then it bobbed along on the top of his body as it disappeared up a side street towards the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

Spies Like Them

I did make quite a lot of progress on a comedy spy thriller about two Russian agents in Britain in the 80s until someone pointed out that it was basically the same as Spies Like Us to which I said “Oh yes, so it is” and promptly forgot about it. I wrote an absolutely stonking first scene in which a man breaks in to someone’s house, burgles it and does a big jobbie on the living room carpet before leaving. Two weeks later, I read Quite Ugly One Morning by Chris Brookmyre which has more or less the exact same opening. That was dispiriting.

All Power! Early Soviet Art & Design

This one’s been done quite a lot but I think there is room to revisit the new art created for a new society in 1920s Russia. There were innovations in graphic art which were peculiarly Russian and were set to serve a new sort of society. That’s one for when I can put aside five or six years to go through some archives doing the picture research properly before I start on anything else. It would be chuffing expensive to produce. Words are cheap and you don’t need to pay someone else for the right to use them if you mix them up in your own order. I can’t imagine getting the rights to some of the pictures I want to use would be cheap. Anyway, here is El Lissitzky.

El Lissitsky's
The text reads “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”

Those of you of a certain age might remember the Red Wedge arts activists from the 80s. This is where they took their name and I suppose their inspiration. If you remember them then you probably know that already. I don’t remember being all that inspired by Red Wedge even when I was at my most Socialist.

Collected Worse

Bad poetry. Bad, bad, bad poetry. All my own work. Let’s just leave it there, shall we?

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