Though I wanted to be there to support Tom, I was really rather dreading the London Marathon. Given that Buchanan Street has been my only post-stroke experience of a busy city crowd, and that being in places in which one is constantly assailed by visual / auditory stimuli is now both difficult and scary for me, the thought of negotiating the noise and general confusion of London on marathon day was, frankly, terrifying. Thankfully, I did not have to face it on my own, and the one thing I was looking forward to was spending the day with Felix. As a carbo-loaded Tom squeezed himself onto a packed train to reach the race start at Blackheath, Felix and I pootled down a deserted Whitehall, to set up camp at the finish. Neither of us had seen the memorial to the Women of World War II which had been erected there in 2005, so we stopped to take a look.
The memorial is in the form of a giant bronze coat rack, festooned with the uniforms of women engaged in many different patriotic activities. It is a very arresting piece of public sculpture, and occasioned some debate. On the one hand, we found something tremendously moving in the monumental nature of the monument. The empty uniforms suggested quiet, collective endeavour and a dignified anonymity, made all the more striking by the memorials in close proximity, which celebrated individual military achievement with predictable bombast.
On the other hand, though, there is something just a little troubling about the women’s monument. The discarded uniforms are just that: discarded. The uniforms had been put on; the duties appropriate to such uniforms had been performed, and then, post-war, women had resumed being themselves again. These clothes were chrysalises from which drab, be-uniformed creatures would re-emerge, butterfly-like, into the hyper-femininity of the late 1940s.
I have since read that, when designing the monument, the sculptor, John Mills, was “interested in the concept of these women hanging up their uniforms and going back to their normal lives after the end of the war” (my emphasis). What does that say about femininity and patriotic endeavour? Would the effect have been the same if the memorial depicted men’s uniforms? Is the New Look to blame? What do you think?
From Whitehall, we proceeded to St James’ Park, where we found a small hillock which would afford good views of the marathon’s closing minutes. Then, from her tardis-like rucksack, Felix produced an entire room.
Examining this photograph you may see: teapot containing freshly brewed tea, biscuit barrel containing tasty home-baked treats, Monkl clutching congratulatory golden banana, and mysterious brown paper packages, whose contents will be revealed later. But the most important items of note are 1) the comfortable folding chairs and 2) the singular lack of other people. These two items are closely connected. As the day went on, things grew busier and busier, but, whenever Felix unfolded those chairs, she created an instant oasis of calm around which the mêlée surged insanely. You will also note the lack of other people in all the photographs in this post. That is because I spent the day happily inured from the crowd in Felix’s oasis. Anyone who has been on a trip with Felix knows that she comes notoriously well-prepared. On Sunday she really outdid herself. While poor Tom pounded the streets, suffering from the heat, and struggling to find his own space among 36,000 other runners, we spent a relaxing couple of hours drinking tea, eating snacks, and knitting in the oasis.
An Italian bloke approached and asked to take a photograph of us in our oasis. We suspected we were being pigeonholed as marathon-day curiosities, English eccentrics quaffing tea through all eventualities, but we did not care.
Then the runners started to come in. From our vantage point we cheered wildly, particularly when a brown-vested bloke went by at around the three hour mark. We then made our way over to Horse Guards Parade to retrieve the heroic runner. Tom made it in at a very good time of 3:05 – 7 minutes slower than his best marathon in Dublin a couple of years ago. It is fair to say that he did not enjoy himself – having trained all Winter in Scotland, it was really too hot for him. However, he cheered up immensely as soon as we got him to the pub and presented him with the contents of Felix’s brown paper packages.
Could it be . . . no really . . . could it possibly be . . .
A homebaked sourdough-crusted rabbit pie, no less, with which Tom was the envy of the post-race crowd. This was swiftly polished off, washed down with a pint, and followed by . . .
A congratulatory wagon wheel! The snack choice of heroes!
Running a marathon really is an epic thing. Huzzah for Tom! And a big huzzah to Felix, too, for indomitable pie-baking, chair-carrying, space-creating, conviviality-inducing marathon-like achievements on Sunday!