London jogging

In the wake of the terrorist bombings, some city commuters are dealing with their fears by putting on their running shoes.

Published July 23, 2005 9:42PM (EDT)

As a general rule, Londoners tend to spend their evenings in the pub, not the gym, preferring a pint (or seven) over a regimen of push-ups and perspiration. Since the bombings a fortnight ago, echoed again Thursday, London has remained remarkably similar: The pubs still spill customers onto the streets, and the Underground remains crowded and sweaty. There appeared to be a brief interlude when eye contact and talking was permitted on the tube, but that lasted only a few days after the initial blasts and soon dour silence was once again de rigueur.

Indeed, London seems blissfully unchanged after two bombings in as many weeks. About the only noticeable new phenomenon is the emergence of the London Jogger. By and large of the male gender, the London Jogger bundles his suit and work shoes into a backpack, laces up his running shoes, and hoofs it to and from work instead of risking the tube or a double-decker bus. Both fit and flabby, the London Jogger trundles along that urban warren of bike lanes, sidewalks and one-way streets, huffing a polite "Excuse me," followed by the obligatory and overused "Cheers."

Aside from his backpack, the London Jogger can be distinguished from the more common species (Jogger americanus) by behavior. At a busy intersection the London Jogger does not run in place, nor does he dart dangerously across the road in pursuit of the elusive negative split. Rather, he stands politely with the other pedestrians, awkwardly waiting for the light. Then the "Excuse me" and "Cheers" begin anew.

The specter of terrorism forces us to reevaluate the level of risk we are willing to tolerate in our lives, either knowingly or unknowingly. Our reaction to the discovery of new risks (which, to borrow an inimitable phrase from across the pond, are both "unknown, and unknown unknowns"), invariably tells us more about ourselves than the valence of these risks. It's our response that defines us.

And not all risks engender the same response. Would there be more joggers in New York under similar circumstances? (Yes.) Tel Aviv? (No.) In this way, the London Jogger is unique because he is a rare specimen in a country that is fond of otherwise sublimating its fears. So one natural question: How numerous is this new breed?

Getting an aggregate count for London would be impossible, but surely the percentage of joggers on any given day could be a useful barometer for the true level of threat the city was facing. Adjusting for such obvious factors as weather, a reliable jogging metric could be quite helpful, like animals before an earthquake. Are the London Joggers more or less attuned to the vicissitudes of threat levels?

Those were my thoughts as I sat down for a drink Thursday night at one of my favorite pubs, the Lamb, Charles Dickens' old cider-house, as I marveled yet again how normal London seemed.

Over the span of 30 minutes, I counted four London Joggers, each heading east on Guilford Road, presumably running from central London up toward Islington, and then toward other leafy north London neighborhoods. It seemed like proper journalism called for an interview, so as the fifth runner passed, I finished my bitter and gave chase.

Londoners are a difficult lot to frighten, but Art Melder, a 32 year-old who works for an advertising agency, seemed a bit startled when I pulled beside him and asked him that important first question: "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?" Before 7/7, Melder ("There's no way you're going to get that down," he said, when I asked him to spell his name) either took the tube or biked to work, but now he avoids the Underground as much as possible, and that involves running the seven miles from work near the Warren Street tube (the site of one of Thursday's duds) to his flat in Stoke Newington. He readily admitted his fear of public transport and held no pretext of bravado about his routine. "I do it with a friend usually. I do it to stay off the tube as much as possible," he said, as we ran past London's central post office, a complex that was heavily fortified in response to the IRA bombings of the 1980s. The interview thus concluded, I trailed off, wishing I had asked him if he thought his chances of bodily harm had actually increased dramatically by his participation in London's version of Pamplona's San Fermin festival: the running of the buses. During rush hour.

Since July 7, many references have been made to the "spirit of London," with the inevitable comparison to the city's perseverance during the Nazi Blitz of WWII. Never mind that few of today's Londoners were alive during the Battle of Britain. And as Rob Liddle wrote in the Spectator, the Blitz has become captive to its own myth: "Some of the complaining and the cowardice and the anti-Semitism has been expunged from the national consciousness." More important, London itself has changed. Once riven by class and ethnicity, today's London made its multiculturalism the touchtone of its successful, if not saccharine, Olympic bid.

Aside from the larger question of whether a city can retain psychological features over several generations, there's a crucial problem with the Blitz comparison. During the early '40s, a clear majority of Londoners blamed the Nazis for their nightly bomb storms, not their government for engaging in an ill-conceived war. True, there were appeasers and isolationists throughout the war, but their numbers paled to the near consensus view in Britain that the 7/7 bombings were in response to the misguided policies of the Labour government. From Max Hastings on the right, to George Galloway, the renegade former Labour M.P. on the left, there seems to be widespread agreement on this issue: Britain is to blame.

Which brings us back to the jogging metric and the level of risk the inhabitants of London, let alone Great Britain, are willing to accept. How many more bombings would it take to make London crack, if ever? At what point do the London Joggers appear sane and rational? And will Britain then turn against its own government and demand policy changes, with London going the way of Madrid? These, of course, are troublesome hypotheticals, ones that involve the contemplation of more carnage and bloodshed.

For now, the London Joggers appear to be good for a sympathetic laugh, at a time when a few laughs can't hurt. Hopefully, we won't have to witness a time when we all face redefining ourselves in a rush because of the risks presented us.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Hans Nichols

Hans Nichols is a writer living in London.

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