Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 03 Jul 2017, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Joining a gym

I’ve joined a gym. The doctor says I have high cholesterol and I feel, in my own pale, repellent skin as though I resemble a large pot of lard onto which someone has stuck goggly eyes. When I have a bath, my stomach looks wet, glistening and bulbous, like Moby Dick’s back and I can’t bend down to tie my shoes without getting lightheaded. With this in mind, I handed over my £30 joining fee to a girl who was politeness itself, then handed over my month’s membership and moments later, had the misfortune to enter a world from which all the joy, life and, more importantly, wit, have been sucked as if from a giant hoover.

The whole thing is impressively slick, with fleets of static bikes, cross-trainers, treadmills and those odd spin bikes, as well as all the weight machines you’d ever need and a free weights area that is the biggest I’ve ever seen. It’s light, airy and there are huge, floor to ceiling glass windows with a view, at least in part, over a wooded area. The standard of decor is uniformly high and, for what is, I’m told, a council-run gym, this is the equal of any private facility I’ve ever seen, feeling like a place for which you’re paying many times more. And, as a final kicker, the staff are helpful and lovely way beyond their pay grade. All, in the most practical sense, is fine.

Problems start when you look up. More accurately, you look up at the bit of wall over the free weights area. There a slogan has been embossed, which reads ‘Be stronger than your excuses.’ I’m sorry, but this is babble from the first syllable to the last. Thing is, I’m already in the bloody gym with the stated intention of being less fat and disgusting, so I don’t need preaching to when I’m there. Were my excuses to be stronger, I’d be sat at home eating doughnuts and laughing maniacally,  but the fact is I’m not and I’m here, so the last thing I need is pious homilies that look as though they belong in Donald Trump’s bathroom. In his estimable book, Paperweight, which is a collection of essays and columns, Stephen Fry said that there was a trend in advertising back in the eighties to which the subtext was ‘this is so good, it’s almost American.’ So it is with gyms and slogans.

As catastrophically banal as that one is, it pales into insignificance when you meet the other gym users. And I say ‘meet,’ when what I actually mean is ‘sweat next to,’ because the one thing you don’t want to do is talk to anyone when you’re out of breath or sweating so profusely that you look as though you’ve been swimming, inexplicably clad in mismatched gym gear that looks like it came from the last scratchings at the car boot sale. Generally I time it so that it’s after midday and the only people in there are rejects like me who can bring themselves to an advanced state of cardiac arrest by taking their tracksuit bottoms off, but if I go late, as I did today, I’m exposed to the full, fiery blast of gym bunny idiocy.

The free weights area is transformed into some kind of strangely primal and exclusively male space in which conversation is mainly conducted by nods or curt ‘alrights’ permeated with appalling alpha male posturing and oddly coquettish preening on the benches or stands. In fact, the whole thing is madly camp, for all that the participants would have you believe they were fiercely heterosexual and just lived to shag, at least, when they weren’t here in exclusively male company acting out some odd, uber-male ritual for the benefit of each other. This is, essentially, Tom of Finland which, if you don’t already know, is a fabulous world of stylised and mildly pornographic cartoons showing the kind of male archetypes beloved of The Village People. In the gym, however, gym gear replaces Tom’s jodhpurs and small leather hats.

Into this heaving soup of repressed longing and bubbling testosterone there strode a man so utterly and perfectly emblematic of it all that you had to conclude he was either a genius at parody or an utter halfwit unaware of how laughable he is. This figure, who was so madly buff that he could have strolled out of a Caravaggio painting, fully realised, while Caravaggio chiselled himself off to a gloopy climax in the corner, was wearing maroon leggings so unbelievably tight and figure hugging that he may as well have been naked from the waist down, revealing an arse that was so peachy and perfect that the only appropriate reaction was one of incredulity. On his feet, he was wearing Nike hi-top basketball trainers, obviously crisp white and wholly perfect, with a fitted hoodie that showed the infeasibly perfect definition of his upper body, honed into a giant ‘V,’ and on his head, the final touch suggesting imbecility, was a maroon beanie. This man, 24 at most, had the air of a slightly rubbish Mercury, imagined by a hipster, and with his equally boorish friend, was doing everything in his power to dominate the gym and make it all about him and his vaulting ego.

And I absolutely recognise that some of this is the jealousy of a fat old man at human perfection he knows he’ll never attain, while some of it is resentment at the cockiness of youth which, in my case, can barely be seen in the rear view mirror, but heavens, everyone in that free weights area was an absolute arse, Caravaggio’s muse included. They grunted, they huffed, they puffed, they posed and they tried hard to lift ever bigger weights for reasons that I can only begin to guess at. It had nothing to do with health, because people can and do drop dead with perfect bodies because their hearts are a mess, and everything, perhaps, to do with a very kind of male narcissism in which mere existence is not enough, but you want to oppress other men out of existence with the size of your biceps. Women in this world are only valued as an audience for awesomeness and not, by these preening fools, for themselves. How do I know this? Because they were absent. There was not one in the free weights area, nobody’s partner had come with them and there was a huge sense that they were not welcome in this pantomime of maleness.

If something snapped in everyone’s head at the same time, you get the sense that there’d be a very vivid descent into cannibalism and really rather violent anal sex that had everyone else streaming towards the exits. The odd thing is that for all their size and weightlifting prowess, these men are a bit like battery chickens, often so inbred for their breast meat that their legs fail, in that they have no real purpose outside the gym. I’ve met some people who were in the SAS and they were small and wiry men with quick eyes who probably wouldn’t lose many fights provided you were allowed to fight unbelievably dirty. Put the gym bunnies in the field, away from their weights and their protein shakes and, probably, their pharmaceuticals, and they’d be in trouble. Anecdotal evidence suggests that men who survived the First World War were men like my great granddad, a tiny whippet of a man who lived off a grain of rice a day and perhaps two on Sundays. Men who needed to eat half a cow before they could stand up? Not so much.

So I’ll keep going to the gym, keep avoiding the free weights area and marvelling at the open idiocy that is on display there. It saddens me that’s what men do when indulged, that they oppress women out of spaces and focus on themselves and their perverse needs above all else, and it saddens me that the rooms off the corridor that leads to the gym were paradoxically full of women avoiding the grunting men, but meditations on that will have to wait for another time. I have fat to lose and men to quietly marvel at.

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