An Irishman's diary: No Man’s Land

An Irishman’s Diary about war and pilates

The first World War had many unintended consequences, including the rise of the Soviet Union, fascism, and of course the second World War. But among its few positive results, also accidental, was the exercise regime known as Pilates.

Maybe it would have happened anyway. After all, the man who founded it, Joe Pilates, was a gymnast and fitness fanatic before 1914. Moreover, his personal obsession, as a former sickly child who had trained himself into robust health, was already being turned to the benefit of others.

But he was also a German, who by the outbreak of war was living in Britain, where he was interned as a threat to state security. It was in internment camps, in England and the Isle of Man, that he refined his system of core-strength-building exercises.

Among his guinea pigs were the bed-bound patients of a camp infirmary, for whom he developed a special regime. Such patients would have been more than usually vulnerable in 1918 when the Spanish flu – deadlier than any war – swept Europe. But by luck or acquired immunity, none of Joe Pilates’s trainees died.


Whenever I’m challenged about my own Pilates habit, which is nearly a decade old now and has increased to two, sometimes three classes a week, I take comfort from its quasi-military origins.

It was of course an old war injury that drove me to it: suffered during the never-ending conflict between journalists and their deadlines. One day, eight or nine years ago, I was struck with an excruciating pain, extending from my right wrist up through my shoulder and down my back.

It stayed for weeks, the flashpoints varying from hour to hour, but the discomfort unrelenting. The only pain relief that worked was immersion up to the neck in hot baths. I ran baths at four in the morning, sometimes, and such was the sleep-inducing relief, it’s lucky I didn’t drown.

The problem was diagnosed as a combination of computer-mouse overuse and bad sitting posture. This is a well-known hazard of column writing, wherein you can spend hours staring at a screen, hoping a witty idea will appear there eventually, and getting depressed when it doesn’t.

Adjustments to seat and screen level and banishment of the mouse were subsequently advised. But a fellow sufferer also suggested Pilates. So despite visions of a roomful of women in leotards (not an unpleasant vision, normally, but in these circumstances unnerving), I went to a place called The Posture Centre and nervously signed up.

I think it helped, in retrospect, that the instructor, Marc, was male. And not just male, but a bloke’s bloke, who discussed football and rugby, and dispensed bad horse-racing tips. These were important reassurances for a middle-aged Irishman doing pelvic exercises for the first time.

My class-mates were indeed mostly women back then. But in the years since (I’m an advanced student – level 4 – nowg) I’ve noticed a definite increase in the numbers of men attending. There’s even an occasional class now where we’re the majority.

The original Pilates was a bloke’s bloke too apparently. Despite his fitness obsession, he smoked cigars, drank whiskey, and chased women (not just for the exercise either). At least one of the bad habits contributed to his death, from emphysema.

But he was 83 by then, and his New York Times obituary described him as having been "a white-maned lion with steel-blue eyes (one of them glass from a boxing mishap) [...]as limber in his 80s as a teenager".

I wouldn’t claim to be as limber as a teenager, even now. But since starting the classes, the shoulder pain has never returned, nor have I suffered any injuries as a born-again runner: a side-effect of the regime. Also, I may owe something even more fundamental to Joe Pilates.

It used to be said to teenagers of my generation, when we had long hair or hung around corners too much, that a spell in the army would straighten us out. I remembered this a couple of years ago while getting my height measured as part of a check-up.

As usual, I was resigned to being five feet eleven-and-a-half: the tantalising altitude at which I’d been stuck since age 18. But no. The nurse assured me I was now six feet, a shock result that survived the recount. I can’t prove this was Pilates. But I avoided a spell in the army, and some straightening out seems to have occurred anyway.