Bench Press

by Sven Lindqvist
Granta (2003)

bench-press

I’ll admit to being a sucker for a self-help book. There are a few from that particular genre tucked away in a quiet corner of my bedroom bookshelf, on the opposite end from the sports books. Bench Press, sits half way between them.

It’s a book that belongs to neither category, though it contains elements of both. In fact, I’m not even sure what kind of book it is – it’s an essay made up of lots of essays, it’s a kind of fragmentary memoir, a selective history of body-building that’s also a book of dreams, a book about self-improvement that offers its reader none of the usual pointers and platitudes.

Ultimately, it’s a book about finding oneself which is possibly why I return to it so often. I love the way it’s composed, almost like music. Like a song-cycle of thematically linked, individually discrete, perfectly formed chapters that each sing out resoundingly on their own. Taken together, they make a strange and compelling whole.

Bench Press seems to lack any kind of central narrative. If it’s a quest, as many such autobiographical explorations are, it’s not about a search for anything obvious – a missing father, a family mystery etc. And I don’t think the author began writing it with a clear idea of what he was looking for. There’s nothing to hook you, to propel you forwards. Instead, it seems to propel you downwards. It’s a book that takes you deeper into its subject, deeper into the author’s dreamworld, deeper into the source of whatever it is – and we have only a few clues to go on – that incited him to begin writing in the first place.

There are a number of recurring images: a new-born’s fontanelle, fire-eaters, desert divers, falling keys. The thread that sews it all together is body-building, specifically his entry into the discipline of weight training. Lindqvist intersperses snappy little chunks of sporting history, from the development of weight-lifting machines to the training techniques of successful athletes, alongside a report on a body-building contest held in Gothenburg. But the aspect of the book that provides its centre of gravity, as it were, is where Lindqvist recounts the effects of weight training on his interior life as his exterior body adjusts to the demands of his new discipline. I can relate to all of it. Reading this book always unleashes surprising recollections and associations.

Body-building was the first sport I got interested in as a teenager. I bought a set of dumb-bells and a chest expander (!) which I worked with at home until I got the confidence to start going to a gym. I bought a book on body-building, read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biography, studied all the main muscle groups and how to work them: learned my deltoids from my trapezius, my lats from my pecs from my quads, my glutes from my abs. I bought some disgusting protein shake stuff from the health food shop and trained ardently but aimlessly for a while until America came calling.

When I enrolled in high school in El Paso, I expressed an interest in attending the gym. My host brother was a varsity quarterback. He took me to where they worked out, the only time I ever went there – the kids here were operating on an altogether different level. I met boys my age but twice my size, huge mustachioed Mexicans in their early teens built like refrigerators, freshmen that could bench their fathers, all of them proving their might and muscle in a range of vigorous team pursuits that required strength and bulk and power. I felt weak and wan. I tried out for the wrestling team because I had been practising a martial art called Tukido at home for a while and I fancied I could handle myself. I lasted a couple of gruelling training sessions and finally balked after being tangled painfully to the mat during practice by a boy made seemingly entirely of knuckle.

The gym habit never entirely left me, though I’ve never quite felt at home with the heavy mob, the Muscle Marys, the grunters and humphers heaving into floor length mirrors. The vocabulary I had picked up came in useful when I started teaching in Turkey. I met an ambitious young man called Ozdenir, a former Junior Mr Turkey who trained at a gym across the road from the school where I worked. Ozdenir’s plan was to work in the posh hotels in Ankara, to become a personal trainer to rich Westerners, make his fortune, move to America. He was in that school every single day attending every extra class he could, as well as my own elementary class. We became friends – Ozdenir was friends with everybody – and I offered to give him personal English tuition in exchange for a bit of weight training. I taught him the language of the gym: sets and reps, pull-downs and push-ups, curls and squats. All that. And in return he helped me put together a training programme, showed me how to use a few machines, got me to think about my diet. It worked perfectly until we both had what we needed. His English continued to improve at an amazing rate; I trained on my own for a while until my social life started to get in the way.

I still go to the gym a couple of times a week, still lift tiny weights – I kid myself on that I’m building endurance, not mass. Which is kind of also true, but I prefer to annihilate myself on the stationary bike and rowing machines, plunging my heart rate into and out of the red repeatedly until I can barely see. I love that.

And I’m talking about self-annihilation here in the metaphorical sense, of course; the best sense. I realised, not long after my mother died, that I needed to have exercise in my life to keep me happy. I was smoking, I was over-weight, I was in a job I hated, I was in a relationship that was making me miserable. Everything was connected but I couldn’t find a way out.

I had been suicidal before so I knew that I was prone to extremely dark and dangerous thoughts relating to my lack of self-worth. These thoughts weren’t connected to any particular event or situation, it was like it was just in me, like the way you get a really bad cold every few years that keeps you off work. Feeling suicidal was a bit like that. It came over me like a virus.

I took to exercise as a way of staving off the demons. And it worked. But it’s a lesson I repeatedly forget to remember. So much of our psychology is bound up with our physiology. This should not be news to us, but it is. It repeatedly is. We forget we are flesh. We get so lost in our heads and hearts that we let our bodies that carry them turn to mush. Every time I feel the wave of crushing self-hate crashing over me, it takes ages – sometimes months – to realise that I’ve stopped exercising. Or that I’m tired. Or that I’ve been eating shit food. And, yes, they’re all related, one begets the other, but it’s relatively easy to stop the rot. Go to the gym. Get on the bike. Go for a run.

I’m not really interested in why I’m like this. I’m not looking for a narrative, not looking for a reason. I just am, and kind of always have been, kind of always will be – to one extent or another. And I love it when you meet a fellow traveller, someone like Lindqvist, to remind you that your faults and failings and frailties, along with your delts and quads and abs and glutes, are the very things that make you a human, just like everybody else.

Aphrodite

Paris & Sharp
(2001)

aphroditeIt might seem a strange piece of music to associate with something as momentous as the death of my mother but here it is, in her anniversary week, a memento of a moment in time.

Mum died October 14th, 2001. She was 56.

It’s almost too big a subject to write about. The timeline of her death – a brief four weeks from hospitalisation to cremation – is beginning to sand over, events shifting and blown by the winds of time, memories waning. It’s an event that divides my life into two distinct epochs: the time with my mother alive; the time since.

There’s something ethereal, otherworldy, almost heavenly about this music, an unlikely description, perhaps, for a piece of percussive electronica. I heard it in the car a number of times as I was driving back and forward in the quickening nights between home and hospital. It soon became an earworm and I went out and bought the single. It’s a dance track, but a vocal sample from a Hans Zimmer movie score gives the music its spice aroma that draws my ear and fires my imagination. Concrete cityscapes, desert dry dunescapes. Sodium lamps, sunken tombs, dead roads. Incantation. Prayer. Ritual.

Mum was a Catholic. A really devout one. Which meant that I was raised as one. By the time I reached the end of my first year at university, I had given all that up, and for a while it created an unholy schism between my mother and I. She felt that my rejection of her faith was a rejection of her. But it wasn’t a personal thing. There was a moment where I saw the inherent doublethink and hypocrisy at the heart of religion in a wider sense and chose to reject it.

But you don’t escape lightly from a lifetime of indoctrination. I know the ins and outs of Catholicism even still, and even as I continue to reject it it stays with me. In the days after her death, I could not recognise the frantic rosaries, the rhythmic ritualistic murmuring that was constantly around us, as anything I once identified with. I had absolutely no use for it. It depersonalised her. It severed my grief. It made a stranger of me in the family home. When I was preparing the eulogy that I would read to the mourners at her funeral, a pious relative took me aside and warned me that my words had better not say anything too personal.

It took a week to arrange the cremation. In the days preceding that, my mother’s body lay in the living room, waiting to receive the blessings of those who came to pay their respects: family, nuns, priests, friends in Christ, all crowded round to recite, incant, sing mutedly.

I couldn’t connect with any of that. The body that lay in that cold, cold room, the body that had conceived me, that had carried me, that had been my conduit into the world and my first contact with it, my first source of comfort and strength, was now some kind of token of who my mother really was in the eyes of God. Religion treats the body as a device for the soul, a carrier of the spirit. Here, in her own house, my mother’s body had been reduced to an abstraction, a stand-in for the bit that God lay claim to. And that bit had gone, chased into the afterlife by prayer. The intensity of these rosary recitals was as foreign to me as listening to a room full of ululating Arab women. Why the urgency? It was all over. It was too late for words – unless you take the view that these rituals exist as a balm for the living.

Mum had died in the hospital days before. She had been transferred to the cancer ward where her condition rapidly deteriorated. We saw her one night, the last time we saw her conscious, and she was furiously reciting prayers through her oxygen mask. She knew, though we were still in complete denial about it, that she was going to die. We were no use to her. She sent us away.

The next time we saw Mum, she was in a coma. She had been moved overnight to her own room and had developed the rasping, laboured breathing associated with imminent death.  It was a shock to us, as we were expecting her to begin treatment that day. A well meaning medic took us aside – my father, brother and I – and told us she was going to die.

We came out, reeling and numb, and went to Mum’s room. The violent rasping had subsided, her breathing getting shallower and shallower. Her best friend had arrived with one of their nun friends and sat together with my great-aunt, praying by Mum’s side. I stood helpless for a while, listening, frustration growing. To me, these useless words were getting in the way of any meaningful communication taking place. It was a waste of the final moments any of us would have with her. The cancer was about to take her life away and no-one could say anything for this endless stream of nonsense. Then I asked everyone if I could be with Mum alone, and they obliged.

What does a son say to his dying mother? What does she need to hear? What do you need her to know? What are the words that truly count? Words of love, gratitude, reassurance.  In the repressed and emotionally straitened culture of the west of Scotland, we often lack the ability to make these words part of our lives, though we may crave to speak them, to have them spoken to us. It was hard to hold her hand with so many tubes sticking into it. We were never a very touchy-feely family. We make life so very difficult for ourselves.

I try to imagine her as a grandmother. I try to see her in my daughter. I’m sure my dad does too. When we visit Grandad, we play with the bangles and brooches in Mum’s old jewellery box. It saddens me that she won’t be part of my daughter’s life, but we say night night to Nana Honor every night. And as she gets older, we’ll continue to talk about her, to look at old photos and she’ll know the warmth and beauty and generosity of the woman I knew – not the God-bound spirit vessel, but the very real, very wonderful human being who drew so much love around her, who had so much love to share. An Aphrodite in her own way.

Ambient 1: Music For Airports

Brian Eno
(1978)

music-for-airports1/1

First airport. Glasgow to Tenerife. 1976. It was our first proper holiday abroad as a family after my Nana won a sum of money in a competition she entered in my mother’s name. She was always doing that. Always winning competitions, often in someone else’s name. Always jetting off somewhere on a prizewinner’s package with her sister, my great-aunt Maxie. On my bookshelf there’s a photo that made the Evening Times of us being presented with the cheque. £1500 was a lot of money in 1976.

I don’t remember the airport but I do remember the clouds out the window. Nana and Maxie. Puerto de la Cruz. Hotel Majec. El Teide. Bus trips and buffets. 7Up and Kodachrome. Cine film memories.

I am having insomnia tonight. I managed 30 minutes sleep after an early night, then – boom! Wide awake and a head full of trouble. I already wasted the best part of an hour trying to still my thoughts back into unconsciousness, but I’ve given up. I used to fall asleep within seconds of closing my eyes. Now, not. This is partly the reason why I never have early nights. I don’t trust myself to stay asleep for long enough if I haven’t wrung out every last drop of energy from brain and body, till my eyes are crabbed and creased, till I’ve given myself the red-eye.

So here I am. Counting airports.

The Tenerife holiday figured large in family lore. We watched the cine films my dad took over and over, we retold our stories – my brother filling his buggy with the streamers he’d collected from the carnival, me pushing my Nana up the hill to make her go faster, the wobbly camel ride, the bus trip through the clouds to the top of the Teide. These stories lasted us for many years. After that, our holidays were a little less colourful, a little less exotic, but no less memorable or enjoyable.

Nana and Maxie were great playmates for my brother and I as children. They were always full of laughter and love and generosity. We went through a spell of renting a large caravan by the sea on the Salway coast, always around Easter time, at a place called Auchinlarie. It too entered family lore for years to come. The steep descent to the shingle beach. The Happy Valley amusements. Games of cards. Car trips. Easter eggs. Donkey rides. Clambering over rocks. Family albums filled with Instamatic moments.

The last time I saw my Nana was at an airport – Glasgow again – ten years later and leaving for a year in El Paso. She confided in my mother as I boarded that she thought this would be the last time she would see me. And she was right. I left in August; she died the following January. A long-term sufferer of angina – which I couldn’t have known as I was shoving her, breathless, up that hill in Puerto de la Cruz all those years before – she didn’t die of the heart attack she suffered after Christmas, but of the pneumonia that took hold in the new year.

1/2

I love the sense of life-changing possibility you can find in an airport. Even still, with the increasingly ludicrous demands placed on travellers – to remove shoes, belts, to empty pockets, to hand over liquids, to stand and be frisked, to have your retina photographed, the corporate state sponsored curtailment of movement and the usual freedoms – you still feel like you’ve put yourself positively in the way of fate that a trip in the car never does.

The closest I felt to being completely at ease in an airport was at the departure lounge in Glasgow (again) late one evening bound for Turkey to start a new job – new career, even – as an English teacher. I had been interviewed by phone three days before and was invited to come over as soon as I could. The next available flight that would take me the bulk of the way to Ankara (without having to go to London first) was for Dalaman, an airport that services the resort towns on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast – I was boarding a charter full of holiday makers. I felt like a spy in their midst.

If it was as step into the unknown, it was a familiar one. I was becoming adept at making that kind of step. I felt as if a whole new world was opening up to me, or rather, that I was returning to the world that had already opened up to me in the past year from my travels in Israel and Egypt. I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing with my life. I felt entirely myself, wonderfully complete.

2/1

I used to paint to this music, back when I painted. I had read a piece about Eno in a magazine and felt compelled to buy this album in particular as representative of his ambient work. It’s probably one of the oldest objects on my shelves. I picked it tonight I guess because I needed quiet music, but also because I’ve been listening a lot recently to Eno’s collaboration with David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Which puts into words that feeling I’m trying to get at here, where “nothing has changed but nothing’s the same”.

I wonder if it’s possible to ever regain that feeling of at-one-ness I felt that night waiting to fly to Turkey, that feeling of a life suddenly spilling over with endless potential. I sometimes call them “knee moments”, the point where you’re about to spring into the unknown and everything is flex and fluidity – but I wonder if the metaphor I’m looking for is less corporeal. Where we suspend the normal rules and mores and habits and customs and patterns of behaviour that bind our sense of identity, where we become more receptive to other ways of being – this is the gift that travel gives us. Maybe I should call them airport moments.

ALC AMS ARN ATH BCN BIO BRS BVA CAI CDG DFW DLM DUB EDI ELP EXT GLA GRO IST JFK LGW LHR LIN LTN MAN MLA PIK RYG SOU SSH STN TFN TFS TLV WAW YUL YVR YYZ

Listening again, I realise that what I love about this music, what I’ve always loved, and what I was looking for when I first listened, is its lack of reaching for an end. It’s like waves on a beach set to music. Not suggestive of airports so much as clouds forming, or of breathing.

2/2

Around the time of finding out about Eno and ambient music and all that, I was very into Zen and the writings of John Cage, particularly the stuff about all sound being potential music – that all you have to do is frame sound as music, a slight shift in perception. I was travelling with a friend to the USA. He was very deep in a “knee moment”, a new career, a new life beckoned; I was just going on holiday. We had travelled overnight to London from East Kilbride by bus so both of us were tired, a little bit wired. As we loitered around Heathrow’s vast spaces, sprawled out across the soft banks of semi-reclined seats in the waiting areas, I closed my eyes and tried to frame the sound, to find the music in the ambient noise of the departure lounge. I listened deeply for the faraway sounds of the distant ends of the terminal building, past the attention-grabbing pings and pongs of tannoy announcements, the beeps and trills of baggage carts and other devices, tried to hear the ebb and flow of voices like surf on shingle, tried to layer all the audible sounds, to look for connecting strands, sequences, fluctuations in dynamic – then suddenly I stopped trying. I had succeeded and learned what Eno probably knew all along, what Cage had always known, which is that airports make their own music.