A Downland Index by Angus Carlyle
(Uniform books, 234 x 142 paperback with flaps, 72 pages. Out now.)
Review by Mathew Clayton
A decade ago I made a foolish mistake. I woke up one Sunday morning with a hangover, and decided to run the Reading half marathon.
I didn’t have any proper sporting gear so borrowed my wife’s pyjama trousers that looked a bit like a tracksuit (if you ignored the frilly bit around the ankles). Arriving late I wasn’t able to use the lockers kindly provided by the organisers, and had to run most of the race wearing my donkey jacket. I tried awkwardly stuffing it in my backpack, but it didn’t fit and every few hundred yards it fell out, annoying the runners around me. The worst thing though about the day was a general feeling that I was in the wrong place with the wrong people. Everyone else seemed so…organized. They were not people that had ever woken up on a Sunday morning with a hangover and thought fuck it I will run a half marathon.
Until then my running had been confined to lunchtime visits to a low-rent gym in Victoria. Everyone there was pretty weird. There was a guy who always wore a plastic anorak with the hood tightly pulled over his head. He sweated an extraordinary amount, it just ran off him, sometimes it spurted. And there was also a homeless guy with mental health problems. When I worked at The Guardian on Farringdon Road, his pitch selling The Big Issue was right by the front door. I hadn’t seen him for a few years but he recognised me in the gym and used to shout very loudly from the treadmill, ‘Hey Guardian man’ whenever I walked in. I presumed this was a normal cross section of the running community. I was wrong.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise – culturally there were very few running touchstones I could relate to. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – that was pretty much it. Whilst dozens of books are published every year about walking, no-one ever writes about how it feels to experience the British landscape by running through it.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying how delighted I was to read Angus Carlyle’s A Downland Index that was recently published by the fantastic Uniformbooks. Carlyle’s book contains 100-word descriptions of 100 runs taken over the course of 18 months. Reading it felt like I was holding up a mirror to my own experience. Some of this is simply because we run quite near each other on the South Downs, but it was more than that. Carlyle has managed to wonderfully capture the fragmentary set of sensations and observations you experience when running. When you are walking, the landscape unfolds continually round you like a film. When running, half your concentration is taken up putting one leg into front of the other and trying not to fall over so instead your impressions are disjointed: more like a series of photographs. Or as Carlyle says in his excellent Outro, ‘the Downs that pressed through the soles of my feet felt more as parts than they ever did a greater sum’.
Here is a typical example from the book, although one should bear in mind that their impact is greatly increased by reading a few of them together…
Tiring of tyres and engines, I cross into the woods near the old dry ski slope. A tree stump coated with white plaster, circles of blackened bricks, tarpaulins stretched out, lean-tos of rotten branches, a folded checked shirt. Now lost, I follow the twists of a shallow, narrow path. Voices somewhere and then relief to break out of the woods into a large field. A mile away, above the trees, I see the white flats above my house yet still can’t place where I am nor where to go in this expanse of tufty flower grassland. A maze without hedges.
My unease with the running community has gradually subsided over the years – I think there are now more interesting people taking up the sport. I was particularly delighted on a very hot day last year to spot a gangly middle-aged man on the Downs running in just a pair of scarlet Y-fronts.
Further info about Angus can be found here. His work sits somewhere between art, field recording, sound installation and writing. His recent project A Crossing Bell at the Estuary Festival looks particularly interesting (details on his website).