Today is the feast day of the Jesuit martyr St Edmund Campion. In the long ago, I attended a grammar school which bore his name. Each year, on the first of December, the school celebrated its patron saint by making all the pupils between the ages of 11 and 16 engage in a cross-country run. On a bitterly cold December morning, then, instead of sitting in a classroom poring over a Latin textbook, we would stand assembled in a field, shivering in skimpy running kit, awaiting the barked order from a teacher which would send us scurrying and squelching through mud and puddles for a seemingly interminable race.
I was not an athletic child, and the prospect of these runs filled me with something close to despair and rage at an unfair universe. In the first year, I avoided it by remaining at home in bed, moaning weedily and convincing my parents I was suffering from a terrible malady. In the second year, I contrived to be knocked down by a car on the way to school and spent the morning in a hospital bed from which I was ejected, being unharmed, by midday. In the following three years, however, I took part in the annual cross-country run.
We are not talking about the real countryside here. The school was located in suburban Essex, so the “country” across which we were forced to scamper was a few fields and patches of scrubland in the vicinity. It was a bleak and awful landscape of mud and brambles and nettles and muck. pitted with puddles, often beset by driving rain and howling winds. Much as I loathed every second of this annual horror, I realise now that it had a powerful effect on my imagination, for if that is not a Hooting Yard landscape, what is?, what is?