Friday, 20 December 2013

Review of Donald Walker, ‘British Manly Exercises’ (1834).

I’ve used my British Library card as it was surely intended – ? –  and ordered up a 19th-century book whose full title is in fact: ‘British Manly Exercises; in which Rowing and Sailing are now first described and Riding and Diving are for the first time given in a work of this kind; as well as the usual subjects of Walking, Running, Leaping, Vaulting, Balancing, Scating, Climbing, Swimming, Wrestling, Boxing, Training, &c. &c &c’.

So, laughs-a-plenty are promised by the language of the title, and the book doesn’t disappoint. But if it wasn’t written like that, could we still tell it was written in 1834? Yes. For example, we are told that the dress code for exercise was a straw hat and loosely-fitting trousers. Our modern notion of pushing the limits is ruled out: ‘whenever the gymnast feels tired, or falls behind his usual mark, he should resume his clothes, and walk home’. Why exactly these exercises should be British, and why they should be manly, is not explained – although we are told that for Greek and Roman athletes ‘the sexual intercourse [sic] was strictly prohibited’. The line forms a paragraph on its own. Let’s hear no more about it.

The section on running cutely defines it as ‘precisely intermediate to walking and leaping […] a series of leaps from each foot alternately must be performed, in order to constitute it’. I’ll have to remember that next time I’m doing cross-country. Later, the action of running is described as follows: ‘the whole arms move but slightly, in order that the muscles of respiration on the chest may as little as possible be disturbed’. Again, I’d never thought of it like that, but it’s true that your arms should be relatively still. The section describes ‘moderate running’ (up to 700 yards) and ‘rapid running’ (100 yards), before telling us about some ‘feats in running’. Of course, 1834 is a long time before Roger Bannister: ‘the mile was perhaps never run in four minutes; but it has been done in four minutes and a half. A mile in five minutes is good running. Two miles in ten minutes is oftener failed in than accomplished. Four miles in twenty minutes is said to puzzle the cleverest’.

The book also has some unusual training tips. These are probably its most interesting part because they raise the possibility that in future our current training wisdom could sound just as strange (for instance the obsession with drinking: see Tim Noakes, ‘Waterlogged: the Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports’). We are told that little sleep is best, and that training is helped by doses of medicinal Sodium sulfate. In terms of nutrition, two meals of broiled beef or mutton per day are prescribed, but – careful! – without any salt or ‘spiceries’. Very little is said about what distances to actually run, the emphasis instead being placed on a sauna-like treatment: having run four miles in flannel kit and ‘at the top of his speed’, the athlete must drink a pint of hot ‘sweating liquor’ containing caraway seed, coriander seed, root-liquorice, sugar-candy, and cider. He then must sit in bed beneath 6-8 blankets, sweating and dreaming of glory.

Perhaps in future garmin watches, energy gels, and breathable clothing will sound as quaint as what ‘British Manly Exercises’ prescribes for its athletes. I can’t wait to hear about the new ways in which exercise will ‘confer beauty of form and contribute to impart an elegant air and graceful manners’.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Runners of Victoria Park

Review of Bill Jones, ‘The Ghost Runner: the True Story of John Tarrant’ (2011).

In 1959, Alan Sillitoe published ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, the story of a young convinct who purposefully loses a race simply to irritate the establishment. The moral is that running is a solitary sport and alien to fame and fortune.

1959 was also the heyday of another runner, this time in real life. John Tarrant was world record holder at 40 miles and 100 miles (set over 160 and 400 laps of the track respectively). But he was most famous as the ‘ghost runner’, who would leap barriers to run races from which he had been banned.

Farrant’s exclusion dated from two years when he fought as a low-ranking boxer, accepting a total of £17 (£500 in today’s money). He was first excluded from domestic races, then following a media campaign and partial reinstatement, from representing Great Britain. Contrary to Sillitoe’s book, the moral of this tale is that solitary though running might often be, it is also a human, social activity. Being denied the chance to compete on equal terms caused Farrant’s life to revolve around bitter resentment. 

It did so in another age, one of taciturn men and downtrodden wives. Farrant has a succession of labouring jobs – including chipping off the asbestos from train brake pads –, and the runners in question are hard men who ‘would shove you in a ditch as soon as look at you’. His father’s hobby was breeding rats, and for his part John’s holidays were spent at Butlins (where, aged 27, he won the knobbly-knees contest). All this clashed with the athletics establishment of Roger Bannister and Harold Abrahams (see ‘Chariots of Fire’), a.k.a. the ‘blazerati’. Amateurism was the watchword, gentlemanly values the veneer beneath which the dirty work of privilege was done.   

So there’s clearly a story about class here. But there are also things to be said about individualism, and about bodies: in both of these areas, John Farrant comes across as less of a hero. First, he was a difficult man, abandoning his wife and child to live in South Africa, irritating many with his story of iniquity, and hurling expletives at youngsters who overtook him. Second, he pushed himself too hard, eventually dying of stomach cancer aged only 42, having ‘trained’ even in hospital by running on the spot inside a locked bathroom. The unanswerable question is how much of this attitude was caused by resentment at his ban, and how much was innate. John Farrant should cross our mind whenever we romanticize the loneliness of the long distance runner.