An obsession with the activity of the Local Gym followed me to Mother Goose at the Hackney Empire on Saturday, accompanied by my entire family (two parents, two siblings, two in-laws, six nephews and nieces). Uncle Bonkers referenced Jeremy Kyle and I got the joke because I’ve gazed at Kyle sitting at the feet of a pale-faced crack-cocaine-addicted-prostitute while rowing 1500 metres to nowhere. I was always against Local Gyms until I strained my achilles tendon so badly, I was advised not to run for three months. The correlation between physical well-being and mental approach is something I can no longer ignore, so I joined the gym while said tendon is allowed to heal. And I’ve started to love the gym in ways I might never have imagined: including getting the jokes at the local panto thanks to King’s Hall’s four screens.
Yes. Four flat screens for one small Local Gym. Why? you ask. So did I. Not satisfied with giving customers (for that is surely what we are?) visual excess, Capital Breakfast Show “with Johnny and Lisa” hurls from several pairs of speakers fixed to the ceiling above the rowing machine, the bicycles, the weights, the cross-country ski machine, the mountain step machine, every machine there is in the room. I’ve tried using ear plugs but Johnny and Lisa are too loud. So I’ve taken the decision to accept the environment and engage. Initial embarrassement about flab and stiffness and a general weakness that leaves me pulling 5kg out of metal sockets beside the 73 year-old grandad who lifts 45kg whilst doing sit-ups (“You can look like me, luv, if you work at it,” was his introduction to our first conversation). I’ve thought of doing a survey and asking all gym-goers whether they hate the noise and the general sense-onslaught at 7am every morning. But I’ve still not managed to not care about the vanity of certain people who come in each morning and stare at their bodies moving for at least an hour – even when they’re talking to someone else between exercise, they manage to look in the mirror. Only slightly more weird is the amount of time I spend staring at them, all the hate created by Johnny’s 1980s-style domination of Lisa (which she dutifully accepts – No! Relishes, the cow! – with syrupy laughs and coos to call-in customers) channelled and focused at these slim, hard, young people. One woman – the most slender of all – carries two small weights all the way to the opposite end of the gym simply to have a larger mirror to look in for a little longer. I really do think to myself how much I’d like to drop a weight on her when she lies down for toning and sit-ups at the end, her hair still in an impressively chaotic-but-still-really-sexy thrown-up-this-took-ten-seconds-this-morning-with-a-pencil hair-do. If she knew how much I loathe her, would she change her exercise times to avoid that bat in the grey T-shirt who’s clearly got a bit of a problem? Envy? Don’t be kidding me. Still, there was great delight when the toughest of the men winked at me while I was skiing through Grade 8 snow last week. He was looking in the mirror for 2 hours, but he must have noticed me looking at him. And mistaken that look for lust.
People with mental problems go to the gym and sit on the bicycle machines without moving. Their legs occasionally re-balance the pedals, but mostly they stare at their grey faces, the purple shadows that sag beneath their eyes, and let their head drop to one side. A young girl, perhaps she’s 20, darts about between these often elderly or confused beings, suggesting they try counting whilst they are re-balancing the pedals to help them push the wheel around. They gaze up at Kyle while she speaks, then turn to Sky News and blink at the subtitles, and then the glance drops back to their own reflection in the vast mirrors. You feel you are here because you are outside of the norms. You, like them, like Kyle’s guests, have a problem. You are all here to row nowhere, to ski in snow-less tarmac Hackney, to march on circulating black rubber, and pull weights with no purpose.
I think of the old woman in Luanda, who’d travelled 500 km from Malange with me. She walked through the city with 50kg of something she wouldn’t show me on her head. I offered to carry one of her bags, but couldn’t pick it up. She said, “It’s easier on your head” and then shook hers, muttering about the brancas who don’t know how to carry stuff on their head. Mine was hung in shame. The gym encompasses everything we have become, everything we are not. Like the credit crash, the deep hole bottoming out of our economies, it’s the inevitable end of our progress to which, like credit, we have somehow become obsessed to save ourselves from total misery. In the cacophony of Johnny and Lisa, I chat to the large lady pushing 30kg through her knees at my side. Light material floats around her face and waist and feet, covered from top to toe. We laugh and smile and point at the fatter bits of our bodies that we’d like to lose but rarely is a word exchanged. Only nods and smiles that carry us both far away to somewhere that offers comfort. Neither of us need the mirror, for we see ourselves looking back from the black and grey machinery with red numbers flashing, demanding to know what we weigh in order to accurately calculate how much we are losing and how often our heart is beating.
I laughed so much at Mother Goose, tears were often streaming down my face until I was no longer laughing but weeping for something I couldn’t understand. Something lost. Something I never had. Some part of instinct that has gone for good. That was never there. Often, I remember people and faces from Angola I no longer remember. Always in public. Always laughing. Never understood.
And I’ve just discovered that Lisa and I share a birthday. What the hell could that mean?