April 24. Towards the end of Wanderlust, her fine history of walking, Rebecca Solnit passes by a glass-fronted gym, and looks in at the men and women relentlessly working on their exercise machines. ‘The treadmill’, she writes, ‘is a corollary to the suburb and the autotropolis: a device with which to go nowhere in places where there is now nowhere to go. Or no desire to go.’ (264-5)
The contrast was with more purposeful forms of exercise, the walk in the countryside, the bicycle ride from one place to another. This, of course, was in a time where it was possible to undertake such movement. Now it describes the fate of most citizens in most countries. In my case I have a private field adjacent to my house, but the Shropshire and Welsh hills basking in this morning’s sunshine are out of reach and are likely to be so for the rest of the year.
Instead I keep fit on a rowing machine. It is a Concept 2, for those who take an interest in such matters. A professional-level device which has withstood heavy use over the years. British readers might know that it was on just such a machine that the broadcaster Andrew Marr gave himself a near fatal stroke seven years ago. It is said to be the most efficient of all the gym equipment, exercising muscles from the calves to the shoulders, and also, of course, heart and lungs. This morning I managed 2,924 metres in my standard fifteen minutes, which at my time of life is hard work.
I learnt to row at school in Kingston-upon-Thames. I loved the business, the walk to the riverside, the sleek fours and eights on their racks in the boathouse, lifting them out as a team and lowering them into the water, adjusting the footstraps, gripping the oars, and on command, a racing start, going up through the gears to a full stroke. The surge of power so close to the water is one of the great sensory experiences. Better still was the single scull that I could use. Difficult to balance, but when you mastered it you could race like a motorbike across the surface. Then back to the boathouse, lifting the boat and turning it upside down to empty the river water, and onto the racks.
My Concept 2 has none of these pleasures. The machine is housed in what was once a medieval cellar below my house. The room has been tanked out, fitted with bookshelves, a light-well and bunks for the grandchildren. It is a pleasant enough space, but nonetheless underground. There is no view. No sound of the rest of the household, or indeed a rippling river. Just the seat running back and forth on its track while I listen to the news on the Today programme.
It is difficult not to view the rowing machine as a metaphor for our current circumstance. A disciplined activity which preserves my health and is going nowhere at all, day after day, backwards.
But there is another, more famous metaphor associated with movement on water, the last line of The Great Gatsby: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ I am by profession and practice an historian. This does not seem a problem to me.