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The Run Dem Crew founder, DJ and writer on running, making music and having a Christmas that serves you

The festive season brings with it a flurry of emotions, from excitement and celebrations to busy preparations and time to reflect. We asked Charlie Dark – founder of the Run Dem Crew community and radio station – about what this time of year means to him, and how he looks after his mental health at Christmastime.

What epitomises Christmas for you?

Christmas always catches me unaware, when I start seeing decorations arriving in the shops in October, or sometimes even in September, and then Christmas trees going up in people’s front windows.

I always go running on Christmas morning. I started my running journey on Christmas Day 2006. I figured if I started on Christmas Day – which I think is the hardest day to exercise – then I’m going to continue. I like to run from East London, where I live, to Central London. It’s the one time you can see the city kind of deserted. I like to go to St Paul’s, and over the Millennium Bridge. It’s always been one of my favourite bridges; the views of Central London are nice – you can see Tower Bridge one way and London Bridge, and the various other bridges, the other way.

How do you usually celebrate Christmas? Are there any other traditions, or rituals, that signify this time of year for you?

I always make a piece of music on Christmas Day; it’s just something I’ve always done, since I first started making music. I try and make music inspired by the season and the day. They pieces I create are not always amazing, I just like the process of making music, and I particularly like it on Christmas Day. I find it really grounding.

People know that I’ll disappear for a couple of hours at some point. I’m not really into Christmas TV, so making music is my TV. I always watch the Queen’s speech, that’s something my parents instilled in me, but other than that I’ll be ignoring the Eastenders marathon.

How will you be celebrating this year? Will you be doing anything different to usual?

I think it will be slightly different, because we won’t have the friends dropping in throughout the day, which is something that usually happens – we’ll have people over, or we’ll go to see people during the day – but aside from that we’ll just spend it with the family.

"I like the process of making music, and I particularly like it on Christmas Day. I find it really grounding"

Charlie Dark

What has been your most memorable Christmas, and why?

I’ve had some memorable Christmases when I haven’t been in the country. I was in Australia one year – I was out there DJing and I spent Christmas Day on Bondi Beach. That was pretty memorable – it was really odd to be in a very hot climate on the beach on Christmas Day.

Cooking is often seen as a cathartic pastime, who does the festive cooking in your home?

It’s all hands to the deck. If you want to eat, you have to get stuck in. Our Christmas dinner has mutated over years. I was never really a turkey fan, but it’s always a roast, featuring chicken – marinated with sage, garlic, pepper, salt and Caribbean seasoning – vegetables, and we usually have a baked salmon too.

My partner is from Jamaica and I’m from Ghana, so it’s a kind of mishmash of different cultures. We’ll definitely have some rice and peas, that’s something we always have, and some saltfish and fried plantain. It’s a chance to combine all of the different cultures and influences together in one. You have to jazz up the Christmas dinner.

Does the festive period bring any challenges for you? If so, how do you approach/manage them?

It definitely brings challenges. I think there’s a sense of anxiety that affects many people as Christmas approaches. There’s a pressure because of the consumerism of Christmas, and then there’s also the family pressures of who you spend that Christmas with, as well.

Embracing positivity, sharing positivity, being around good energy and giving good energy is really important to me. The energy you give out and the energy you bring in, who you surround yourself with, how you spend your time, what you watch, what you see, what you listen to, the food you consume. I really do believe that has a deep impact on your mental health.

The festive season can be quite busy and stressful. What have you found helps you to relax, and stay calm and positive, during this time?

That’s another reason why the running, and making music, is my grounding. It helps with my mental balance during the Christmas period. I think Christmas can be quite a stressful time for people, because there is pressure to have a certain type of Christmas. It can be quite intense. There’s a lot going on, on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, there’s a lot happening, a lot of energy. That’s another reason why I’m not really a big TV person on Christmas Day, it’s too much stimulation. 

What do you think is the best way to give back and help others at this time of year?

What I would say to people is: don’t be pressured into having someone else’s Christmas. Try to have a Christmas that serves you. It’s OK if you want to have a solo Christmas. I don’t think you have to bow to this pressure of a table with 20 people around it, if that’s not what you want. I think Christmas should be your event.

That’s really important, because I feel like a lot of people are pressured into celebrating Christmas, and spending time with people who they don’t necessarily want to spend time with. Christmas can definitely be a time of conflict, but it doesn’t have to be. I think you’re allowed to be selfish at Christmas, I really do, because I feel it’s one of those times that can really impact your year ahead.

I think it’s important for your circle of friends, and the people around you, to understand that if you don’t have a good Christmas, that is going to impact your behaviour and thoughts in the year that’s forthcoming. So I would rather sacrifice one day then spend 12 months being down. I think it’s important to start the New Year in the most positive place as is possible.

"Don't be pressured into having someone else's Christmas. Try to have a Christmas that serves you"

Charlie Dark

What is the most meaningful gift you could give to someone?

The most meaningful gift you can give is a smile. And listening.

What would you most like to receive this year?

Just time. I feel like I’ve got to a point in my life where I have everything that I want and need. So actually, I just want to have a good day. That’s the best present I could have.

Do you have a favourite Christmas song?

Yes, I do. It’s called A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke. It was a song that my mum always played on Christmas Day. In fact, that would be the signal to get up. It’s not a fast song, but it’s an emotive song that speaks to me at this time of year as it’s all about new beginnings and aspirations.

Reflecting on the past year and all of its challenges, could you share with us a positive that you discovered amid the adversity, or something you learned that you’ll be taking forward with you into 2021?

Just accepting the fact that this is not the hardest thing that we have been through in our lives. That’s been a real game changer for me. I feel like many of us are buying into the idea that we’re going through really hard times right now, but spending time in your house and focusing on yourself isn’t that hard. This has actually been a really good year to spend time with yourself and become more aware of what you need to keep balance.

Obviously, financially, it’s been hard – businesses are closing, my business has been deeply impacted, my creative expression has been deeply impacted – but it’s given me time to focus on other things and to slow down. So, if anything, I would say, slowing down has been the biggest thing that I’ve learned this year.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There have been some really wonderful things that have come out of this year, and there will be amazing things happening, and opportunities happening, once the world reopens again.

Charlie Dark is a DJ, creative influencer and poet from East London. He founded Run Dem Crew in 2007, an alternative running club made up of creative minds that meet weekly to exchange ideas, explore the urban landscape and move. Charlie has created a space for people of all ages to come together, express themselves and explore their full potential. His work connects communities and encourages togetherness as well as providing people with the skills to navigate and survive the daily challenges of life. rundemcrew.com

The Royal Exchange is partnering with Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest to encourage conversations about mental health, wellbeing and community spirit. For further information on Mind in the City, its support services and how you can get involved with fundraising or volunteering, please visit: mindchwf.org.uk

Image credit: Simon Roberts