It being a much brighter day, I set off for Green Park, travelling by underground. As I left the flat, it began to rain. This proved to be nothing more than a shower. I thought I would walk around this public open space which, when we lived in Soho, was a local haunt. The station has been improved, now offering an exit straight into the park. For some reason which escapes me, I walked out into Piccadilly, turned right into St. James’s Street, down into The Mall, and across into St. James’s Park. This was where, nearly fifty years ago, I had first fallen in love with Jackie, when, seated on a bench, we had, in unison, both exclaimed ‘cannibal’ on seeing a pigeon pecking at the discarded shell of someone’s boiled egg. She may not agree, but to me that meant we at least shared a sense of humour. Runners in the London Marathon must run down The Mall, around the corner facing Buckingham Palace, and along Birdcage Walk to the finish, just out of sight, on Westminster Bridge. Entering the park, I witnessed a scramble of pigeons, in the demarcated feeding area, being fed by tourists. In fact, everywhere, especially in the fenced off designated wildlife section, people were photographing and feeding the livestock. I missed a wonderful photo opportunity when a young woman straightened up, having shot a squirrel. I asked her to repeat the photograph so that I could take a picture of her taking her picture. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortuitously, she didn’t understand English. For which she and her male companion were most apologetic.
Crossing the Blue Bridge into Birdcage Walk I remembered my nephew, Peter Darby-Knight, bravely struggling to walk to the finish, having injured his knee, many years after my own London runs. I had also watched my granddaughter Emily, on two occasions, representing Croydon in the mini-marathon which takes place on the morning of the major event. From the bridge I reprised a photograph I had first taken in the early 1960s. The scene is now dominated by The London Eye.
The pigeons mentioned earlier put me in mind of the mass start to the marathon in Greenwich. It takes ten minutes walking to reach the line, and quite a bit longer to find room to get into your stride. On one occasion I was tripped by a man who tried to pass me in this melee. I ran the race with blood trickling from my grazed knee. He also fell. I didn’t help him up.
In the first London race in 1981, Michael and I had watched the two leading men finish hand-in-hand as they crossed the line. Then, the taking part was all. Like the Olympics, that spirit has evaporated. Winning is all.
My son, who the following year would be eighteen, and therefore eligible to run, suggested we do it together. Taking up the suggestion in earnest, I trained for it. Thinking that, as a rugby-playing fast bowler, I was fit enough, my first session was a five mile run from Croyon College to our home in Furzedown. When I’d finished I could barely walk. I tottered stiffly down to the box at the bottom of Gracedale Road to post a letter. As I turned the corner on my return, who should be striding down the road but John Bussell. John was a neighbour who had said I was completely mad to contemplate the venture. Quick as a flash, I straightened up, denied my pain, and lengthened my step, to greet him.
Michael had more sense, so I ran the race alone. Despite the strenuous competition at the elite level, there are still many thousands of people for whom just taking part is a magnificent experience. I was fortunate enough to participate three times. Then, the Canary Wharf business complex was a heap of rubble. We wondered what was going to be built. The elation of running this race with the streets all lined with row upon row of cheering spectators can only be imagined by non-participants. Jazz bands are playing, and the world is watching on television. If you are thinking of trying it, do not accept one of the many pints of beer which will be proffered outside the pubs alongside. Rather, enjoy the hoses which may be played on you in hot weather.
Coming along The Embankment you will have your first sight of Big Ben. Your heart may sink when you realise you still have four more miles to go. Do not be tempted, as many are, to walk along the underpass where you cannot be seen. If you do, you are unlikely to start running again.
In 1982, Matthew and Becky ran along the footpath beside me towards the finish. That would not be possible now.
Today, entering the park opposite Buckingham Palace, a jogger, attempting to leap the low railings which form a border, tripped and went sprawling. Fortunately on the grass. Some years ago, en route to Victoria where I was to board a train to visit Wolf and Luci in Dulwich, I did something similar. Running there from Harrow Road, in the darkness, off Edgware Road, I tripped on a chain closing off a church car park. I had thought I was still on the footpath. Back-pack in harness, my feet still attached to the chain, I came a right cropper. My hands firmly on the tarmac, I was unable to prevent myself from pivoting, head first onto the unyielding surface. The priest took me in, administered first aid, and called an ambulance; and Wolf and Luci visited me instead. In hospital, where I was being stitched up. I bear the scar to this day. Our meal was a little late that night.
These days, I walk. It’s safer. As I did this afternoon, along Buckingham Palace Road to Victoria, where I boarded a tube train to begin my return to Morden. A blustery shower greeted me as I emerged from the underground and walked back to Links Avenue, listening to the rythmic sound of an empty Carlsberg can playing chicken amongst the traffic.
This evening, I served up a roast chicken meal. Jackie finished yesterday’s Kingfisher and I drank the last of the chianti.