COLUMN: January 28, 2016

I WAS given a belated birthday present a few days ago, and I would like very much to give it back.

I had been for a run and done the exercises I normally do in a futile attempt to stave off my inevitable decline. If I live until 88 – which is unlikely, given my luck in all areas of life – I am now halfway there.

Consequently, I was feeling pretty fit, in the sense that I was exhausted and wanted to die but was not yet dead. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, what does not kill us makes us stronger, although it is possible he had never heard of polio.

In any case, exercise puts me in dire need of a shower, and after I had attended to this need I walked into my bedroom and bent slightly to pick up a towel from my bed. “Slightly” in this case would be roughly equivalent to a Jeremy Corbyn Cenotaph bow.

And I felt a gentle pop in my back, like a single cell in a sheet of bubble wrap. “This is not good”, I told myself. “Popping within the context of backs is more than likely a bad thing. Mind you, it doesn’t hurt, so perhaps it is just one of those things that happen from time to time.”

So I picked up the towel and stood up and immediately dropped to the floor as if I had been shot. “Ooyah!” I cried, like somebody from the Beano. I felt a juddering, shuddering cramp, the sort of pain I usually only feel when I have to type in the long number on the front of my cash card.

I was kneeling on the floor at the side of my bed and could not move without being in excruciating agony. “This really is a sub-optimal experience,” I thought.

“I might be stuck here forever and die of exposure in my post-shower towel-requiring state. And when, in a month or so, the coroner delivers his verdict on my death he will not be able to rule out the possibility I died in a bizarre auto-erotic experiment. This really is pants, which, ironically, I am unable to retrieve.”

I refused to die in such circumstances. I struggled to my feet, the pain in my back white-hot. If anybody had seen me they would have said that I was a brave soldier and also that I should put some clothes on because I was making them uncomfortable.

When I stood, the feeling ran from my back and down my legs. I walked the couple of steps to my wardrobe, each step as painful as if the floor were as hot as the tomato in a cheese toastie. I struggled into some clothes. It is difficult to explain how I managed to put my socks on without bending over or lifting my foot, and so I will avoid doing so.

But when I closed my front door on my way to work, and hobbled along the road to the bus stop I realised that for my 44th birthday I had been given the gift of lifetime membership of a not very exclusive club – The People Who Get Backache Club.

Obviously I have had backache before. I am not Superman. In many ways I am very much the opposite. But the point is that previously I have had to do something extreme to earn it.

For example, I have had to dive for a football (which I then missed) or move a bookcase from IKEA 20 miles away to my home using only public transport. My backaches have been the result of Herculean, heroic effort.

But this? Had I been asked to itemise the activities of my day and pick out the one which would floor me, I doubt strongly I would have pinpointed “picking up a bathtowel from my bed”. It is not even a particularly heavy bathtowel.

The solicitous among you will be on pins by now. You will be asking: “How are you, Gary? Has the pain abated, you massive moaning girl’s blouse?”

I am better, still a bit achey, and I am walking a little gingerly, but much better.

But I know now that almost anything can give me backache, and that is something I can no longer avoid. My age has become a pain in the neck. Which goes well with the pain in my back.
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COLUMN: January 21, 2016

THERE has never been a time in my life when I have not had to prove that I was better than I am.

When I was young, I had to prove that I was as good as an older man. Now I am old I have to prove I am as good as a younger man, and I am not entirely sure when that changed.

There must have been a time in my life when I was exactly the right age, but I completely missed it. This is my tragedy, along with all the others.

The main way I prove I am as good as a younger man, now that I am in my late-early-40s, is by walking. I walk very quickly, my scarf flapping behind me as if I am in the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel.

There are, no doubt, benefits to my health and heart associated with walking everywhere as quickly as I would flee if somebody asked for a volunteer. But that is not the issue in this case. I do not wish to have the body of a 25-year-old, I just want to appear to have the body of a 25-year-old.

I suppose if I took it more seriously I would adopt the gait of the walking athlete, with sharp elbows flying and bottom shimmying.

But it must be an awful life to be an Olympic-level walking athlete – all those early mornings training, eating the right foods, all the time they in the gym, and then they turn up at a stadium and speed round a track, and every spectator is thinking: “Ha! Look at those chumps! That is exactly how I would walk if I were half a mile from home and really needed the toilet.”

Nevertheless, often, while tearing along the street, I will pick up the pace in order to pass somebody who is also walking quickly ahead of me, unleashing the sort of competitive spirit which eludes me in all other arenas.

Usually I win these impromptu races, mostly because I have the advantage of being the only competitor who is aware that a race is happening. But occasionally my opponent will work it out and speed up, and before long we are Seb Coe and Steve Ovett in the Moscow Olympics, passing each other several times without acknowledging our joint participation, and hating each other for the rest of our lives.

This is all to explain that my behaviour is compulsive, and, therefore, what happened was not my fault any more than a lion is at fault for preying on a gazelle. If any factors should be blamed, they are the schools of architecture in this country and the laws of physics.

I was heading to work, walking at my usual speedy pace, and talking to somebody on my telephone, behaviour which had I observed it in another person would cause me to hate that person. In my defence, I am wildly inconsistent.

There was somebody walking ahead of me, and I switched without thinking into competition mode. My pace quickened, and gradually I approached the man. I was just about to overtake him on the right when he too veered to the right.

I slowed down to avoid a collision, and then started again, building up pace. I moved to undertake him on the left, and he moved off to the left.

Maybe this always happens, I surmised, and I would normally adjust, and on this occasion I was merely distracted by the phone call. But maybe this man knew he was in a race and he was switching lanes intentionally to prevent me from beating him, in which case I had finally found a worthy opponent.

I redoubled my efforts, and careered to the right. A burst of speed and I was past him. I was triumphant, just as I was reaching the end of the road.

My triumph, as ever, was short-lived. No sooner had I hoisted my victory flag than a woman came around the corner at a speed matching my own. We collided, as was inevitable.

“Sorry!” I exclaimed. The woman glared at me and continued on her way, no doubt constructing elaborate revenge scenarios in her head.

“Why are you apologising?” asked my telephone interlocutor. I could not explain adequately.

It is moments like these which mean I have to prove I am better than I am. I should really learn to act my age.