This morning I turned out of my house, crossed the green nearby, ran downhill and under the motorway to the park.
I’ve been running for years – but on and off, always for fitness, never as a way of life. I can always quit – and do – but always come back to it.
I’ve run nearly everywhere I’ve lived: during the few weeks I spent in Edinburgh, as a postgraduate student in Norwich, a few times in America, in Paris, and now, once again, back in Dublin.
They say you never know a place unless you actually live there, but it’s also possible to live somewhere and not know it in the way that you do when you run it. Inclines that seem slight when you drive, cycle or walk are revealed to you when you’re dragging your legs up them, having already run several kilometres of hills.
This was especially clear to me in Paris: for months on end I had a fairly standard circuit that looped around from the rue Trousseau, up avenue Ledru-Rollin to place Léon Blum, then down the boulevard Voltaire. I thought of several things as I ran along that stretch: the fact that a young Picasso stayed in the hotel just before the turn to the gymnase Japy, a gym hall where the Parti Socialiste was formed in 1899 and where Parisian Jews were interned during the Second World War. As I passed the Charonne metro station I thought of the eight protestors who died there on 8th February 1962. These three locations were within a hundred metres of one another: all cities are palimpsests of historical memories, Paris more so.
In Edinburgh I ran, thinking of Thomas de Quincey dying in that city in a dusty room, in debt. The muscle-stretching hills of that city lend themselves to transcendental thoughts when running, as does the mountainous east of Paris: when I’m climbing a hill, I’ll think of anything to distract myself from the difficulty of my task. Sometimes I’ll fix on a phrase and repeat it to myself internally until the rhythm becomes a mantra, like Bloom picking apart advertising slogans. Often I’ll just count to a hundred repeatedly, matching the rhythm of my pace. But most frequently I’ll look around, taking in buildings and streets and hills and reminding myself what I know about them, and promising myself I’ll find out more.
On the last night before I left Paris to move back to Dublin, I went for a run up the Canal St Martin, past the site of the Gibet de Montfaucon – once an elaborate and horrific cubic construction from which men were hanged. I thought about how blood would run down the hill from the gibbet, and then wondered if I had confused it with the Mur des Fédéres, the wall in Pérè Lachaise cemetery at which the Communards were shot.
I ran past the space-age Communist headquarters, up the hill and cut to the right, up some steps and around a curving cobbled street which a Situationist dérive had once reached. I later learned that this hill, the butte Bergeyre, once had a stadium sited on top – the stade Bergeyre, which in 1920 hosted the French Cup final, in which CA Paris beat Le Havre 2-1. It also hosted some of the football games in the 1924 Olympics. The stadium had been knocked down in 1926; one day it was there, then it was gone.
When I ran down that cobbled street on the butte Bergeyre, I didn’t know about the old sports stadium that was long demolished – I was there because it had become a place I was drawn to because the Situationists had been drawn there long before me.
Cities exist whether we want them to or not, whether we’re there or not. Yet Paris is still with me, even when I’m running along the pavements and through the parks of a south Dublin suburb. We come and go.