Joggers: a not-so-swift irritation

In his 1729 essay A Modest Proposal the lacerating satirist Jonathan Swift set forth a method of “preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country”. His solution, closely and logically argued and based on complex and apparently scientific calculations, was to eat them. Tipping his hat to Dean Swift, Mick Owen modestly proposes solutions to a couple of problems that perhaps only he can perceive.

Idle hands: such time-wasting is being targeted by this modest proposal

Some might say that the city of Wolverhampton is one of those places best seen in a rear view mirror and we may not demur but should you feel constrained to visit the home of Rachel Hayhoe-Flint, Denise Lewis and Hugh Porter we can recommend doing so by canal, taking your starting point as anywhere south of the West Midlands conurbation.

Such a choice of jumping-off point will have two positives: your journey will take you through the surprisingly engaging centre of Birmingham, where archetypal 21st century structures interact with docks and basins laid down two hundred years earlier, before passing along one of the wonders of the canal system, Thomas Telford’s version of the Birmingham main line.

There are two behemoths in the canal construction canon: James Brindley, who built canals that fitted around the scenery; and Telford, who didn’t. When Brindley connected what are now England’s third and twelfth cities he did so with a waterway which followed the natural contours of the land wherever possible with locks the go-to device when what Paul Gogarty called ‘the water road’* was asked to go uphill. Telford, in a bid to shave time from the journey for canal boats and their cargoes, took a far more direct approach and when faced with uneven topography used tunnels, aqueducts and embankments to keep the waterway as straight and wide as a haussmannised Parisian boulevard. For even the most novice of narrowboat drivers the ten miles from Pudding Green Basin to Tipton is, therefore, an opportunity to relax and reflect as the unedifying industrial scenery slips by.

Narrowboating is often cited as a wonderful way to get away from the worries of the world but empty the mind of things professional and personal and other issues occupy the vacuum, issues such as, “Why on earth are all these people running up and down the towpath on this dull and drizzly Saturday morning?” Once such thoughts intrude, ten miles of wondering allow them to coalesce with others like, “Why is this canal so full of detritus?” and “When did the sense of community in our cities become so eroded that people feel entitled to use and abuse every public space without consideration, whether that be monetary or manners?” And thus, great ideas are formed.

The Bible does not report how long Saint Paul committed to his Damascus trip but NB Symphony took something like three hours to get from Birmingham to Wolverhampton and was accompanied most of the way by one style of running human or another. There was a couple plodding and chatting, many women in tight Lycra and too many fat men sweating copiously in basketball shorts. There were rugby players, football fans, joggers and proper athletes but from mid-canal they all shared three characteristics: they were wasting time, they were wasting energy and they were wearing out the towpath.

This last may seem a slightly unlikely accusation but here is the logic. Towpaths cost money to build and joggers don’t pay to use them. Their selfish pursuit of a self-righteous glow places a disproportionate burden on a resource towards which they do not contribute. Boaters use towpaths and pay an annual licence fee in part so to do. Ditto anglers. People traversing the towpaths to get to work pay taxes from the money that work brings. Joggers take and do not give, in an activity which serves only their ends and which is a metaphor for the worst in modern urban living. So busy do these people think themselves to be that they set aside time to run. Why not run at work? Why not take the stairs not the lift? Why not do something more useful with your Saturday morning when eating less would decrease your dress size and moving more in your everyday life would sharpen up your cardiovascular system?

If 100 people run for one hour each at a consistent speed of 6 miles per hour, given an average soma type and standardised metabolism, they will use – or if you prefer, waste – 87,500 calories, the amount of energy required for a pensioner to mow a lawn the size of 37 Wembleys if he, or indeed she, stops for a cup of tea every hour or so. Since very few pensioners have that size of lawn (only Her Majesty the Queen, god bless her, springs to mind as claiming that much real estate as her own) we could at least infer that, pressed into service on behalf of the less well-off in the community, former joggers could start to do some good with their Saturdays. Pound to a penny there were no single mothers working on minimum wage jogging the towpath that day, or any day, so the time is clearly available for better use.

Once the canal gets past the Tipton flight it becomes clogged with weed which, though it keeps the water clear as a Welsh mountain stream, is a menace to navigation. With a little investment in tools and one expert to supervise, a good 30 of the Birmingham canal network’s joggers could be put to work clearing the hazard at any one time. It would be laborious and sweaty work, of course, but that is what these jogging pests are after, is it not?

While Wolverhampton’s waterway is one of the nastiest to pass through, the entire Birmingham canal network is infested by human detritus with everything from a popped basketball to a fridge freezer bobbing malevolently at the edges; this provides just over 100 miles of bending, stretching, lifting and carrying which could usefully be done by someone. This is the kind of task other members of the idle middle-class give themselves to on a regular basis so the self-satisfied glow which jogging brings can be directly replaced while the exercise junkies learn a new skill and collect some stories to tell around the water cooler when they return to their status-ridden work lives. It might even regenerate the failing billhook industry.  

Once weaned off the ego-driven path-pounding, our newly badged community volunteers could sweep streets, scrub graffiti from park benches or even get back to the gardening for pensioners idea which started all this off. While we are not over fond of the often ridiculous claims for physical activity interventions, there is little doubt that “giving something back” to an identifiable recipient while burning calories would do something to strengthen community bonds.

A solution a neat as this one would have Dean Swift sitting up in his grave and cheering, solving, as it does, the problems of urban untidiness, the decline of community and the theft by training shoe of the towpaths of Britain. And once the joggers have had their energy refocused for the public good we’ll have a think about all those fat blokes in Team Sky cycling outfits currently clogging up the roads of our national parks.


Mick Owen in the managing editor of The Leisure Review.


The Leisure Review, September 2013

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“ Their selfish pursuit of a self-righteous glow places a disproportionate burden on a resource towards which they do not contribute.”

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