Too many sweaty run-ins in London

20:59, Jun 18 2013

I was musing on the joys of uncling, when I was assaulted by a jogger. Here in London they're a menace.

I'd woken early and gone for a walk beside the Thames to watch the city start its day. It was high tide and rat- coloured water lapped at the embankment. A vista of bridges stretched away from me towards Westminster and it was all rather pretty in a Blake meets Wordsworth way.

Blackfriars Bridge, which doubles as a railway station, has been roofed with solar panels. Posters claim that the bridge now generates more than half the energy it uses. How? I don't know. After three days here I have yet to see the sun.

The embankment was already littered with joggers. London is massively multi-racial but almost all were white. And very few of them enhanced the city's scenic appeal. They lumbered and gasped, and grimaced like stroke victims.

One man ran with his personal trainer. The trainer looked to have been built from steel hawsers, his client from uncooked pastry. I suspected the client of banking. The trainer kept up a constant commentary of encouragement. The banker looked as though he would have welcomed death.

They stopped at the Millennium Bridge, where steps lead up towards St Paul's. The trainer assumed the press-up position. The banker knelt on all fours.


"And one and two and three," said the trainer, going up and down like a piston, his hawsers tensing. The banker merely breathed. Noisily.

Because they are in step with the times, joggers believe they run on moral high ground. This makes them impatient with pedestrians, especially us tourist dawdlers who block the path of righteousness. A few joggers have even taken to carrying little horns to warn us of the approach of a superior being.

My assailant needed no horn. His breathing went ahead of him. It would have made a traction engine sound restful.

As he passed me I caught a whiff of his sweat. Two yards on he stopped. I don't know whether he had suddenly remembered to go long on hog belly futures when New York opened, but he turned on his heel and ran smack into my chest. I hadn't even time to raise my arms. It was a full frontal clash.

Since I was dawdling a la tourist and he was setting off to buy hog bellies, the impetus was all on his side. He also had the advantage of many city lunches. I had no choice but to stagger backwards, acutely aware of his heated flesh. He disengaged himself with some annoyance, said nothing, and went slapping back towards the city. But I decided not to lay charges, because of my niece.

I like to think I have mastered the art of uncling. When a nephew or niece is born I send the parents a card of congratulations but I steer clear of the child itself until it grows up a bit and begins to resemble a sentient human being. How long this takes can vary but par for the course is 25 years. Thereafter uncling's a pleasure.

So it was a delight to get a call from a niece who is 30. She'd heard I was in London and would I like to buy her a drink. I told her that was what uncles were for and we arranged to meet at Paddington station at 6pm.

Emma is the daughter of my brother, Nigel. Ten years my senior, Nigel took me fishing when I was little and imbued me with a lifelong love of the art. We sat together by countless ponds and rivers. We spent nights on stony beaches casting into the great black sea. We ventured out in winter after pike. And he always caught four fish to my one. He had a nose for fish.

Paddington at six was a poor arrangement because Paddington at six is home to most of the world's commuters. Standing in the Tube from Notting Hill, held upright by the press of bodies, I was in endurance mode. At the same time I was wondering how I'd recognise my niece whom I'd last seen last century.

"Uncle," said a voice. It came from down below. I looked at the seat in front of me. Smiling up at me were two people. One was a slim and vivacious woman whom I was proud to hug there in the train. The other was my elder brother.

In the shape of Emma's nose and jaw, in the way she held her head, I saw the ghost of the man who'd taught me to fish, who'd fathered two delightful children and who'd then gone on to drink himself to death aged 48.

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