Category Archives: Reviews

Lives; Running reviewed

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Book review in Track Statistics magazine, summer 2015

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We must all have met people who are such concentrations of energy that the question that comes to mind is ‘How do they find more than 24 hours in each day?’ When I met David Renton recently, that was exactly where my thoughts travelled.

But to begin at the beginning. Sports writing is a difficult pursuit and is not generally noted for its outstanding literary merit. There are, fortunately, a few exceptions in the athletics sphere. To begin a book with the words ‘The first man I saw run, really run, was Jack London’ is the mark of a skilled and imaginative writer and W. R. Loader did just that in Testament of a Runner. Another who displayed impressive command of descriptive language was the prodigious F.A.M.Webster whose pen-pictures of past athletes are arresting and vivid. Then one who doesn’t seem to have received due praise, in my view, was Sam Ferris whose long series of articles on road running events for Athletics Weekly in the decades after World War 2 were so compelling that one can almost hear the patter of the plimsoll soles on the tarmac.

Let us now add the name of Renton which will almost certainly be unfamiliar to readers of this journal. David Renton is an Eton College-educated, London-based Barrister with political views which place him on the Left. But, in his book Lives;Running the reader will get little of powdered wigs or manifestos for change. What you will get is a fine read by a man who loves his running and communicates its joys and pains in a way which will stimulate even those whose interest in sport is limited. But he is more than that. He has published around a dozen books on a range of topics, he has consuming interests in sports, social and family history, he is a family man with two small children and he holds down a demanding job.

The first words in this book I have a short stilted stride. I do not stretch, rather I scuttle like a clubfooted beetle tell us that here is a man who accepts his limitations but is not discouraged from the challenges of seeking physical and mental fitness through running. In fact, Renton’s family background shows a strong sporting tradition. His grandfather competed for his college at Oxford University at cricket, cross-country, football and rugby. His father was accomplished at rowing. Renton himself was to achieve 1:59.7 for 800 metres whilst still a schoolboy. Then, after a break from running which lasted for 8 years, he returned to the sport and combined it with cycling. Eventually he entered the London Marathon where he battled to even finish but recorded 4 hours 24 minutes.

Renton devotes a great deal of space in the book to recalling the rivalry between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. This section is wonderfully evocative of a time when British middle-distance runners dominated the world. Renton reminds us that the rivalry was so intense that even athletics supporters (and indeed many people outside the sport) were either for the majestic Coe or cheered for the down-to-earth Ovett. The author makes no secret of his partiality when he writes after the 1500 metres in Moscow [the 1980 Olympic race] Coe asked his rival ‘Where did you finish’. It was only with Ovett’s reply that he had finished 3rd did Coe relax. Yet on the occasions when both athletes lost, Ovett could be seen comforting the younger man. He continues It was that capacity for warmth, sympathy and human solidarity which represented for me Ovett’s victory. I find it difficult to argue with that personal judgement. Whether that made Ovett the better athlete is another question. David Renton’s own view is that there was little to choose between them in innate athletic ability. What he concludes is that their personal backgrounds indelibly shaped the athletes they became. As is well known, Coe was guided closely by his father who made no secret of his determination to mould his son into a high achiever after the boy had failed his 11+. Coe senior believed that hard work paid dividends. But then so did Ovett’s family, successful market traders in Brighton. But is was certainly always my impression that the atmosphere in the Ovett household may have been more relaxed that that at the Coe’s. Whatever, their sons grew into very different human beings.

Renton goes on to describe how he again stopped running after he became a father, only returning to the activity in recent times when past his 40th birthday. Good for him. He writes of what running means for him With just a few other pleasures, running is part of my nature. It is something I could barely exist without. I run to feel the air cool and my body warm. Running has repeatedly surprised me, it has shaken me out of the torpor of daily living. Besides the London Marathon, Renton has tackled a whole series of half-marathons including in Hackney and Oxford and has no intention of cutting back on his efforts.

A few hours with David Renton is unlikely to leave you feeling bored as I discovered on a recent Sunday afternoon in north London. His conversation ranges over topics so far and wide that one cannot avoid being mentally stimulated. On the sport of track and field athletics I put to him my feeling that, whilst professionalism is to be welcomed because it has broken down barriers of class and wealth which featured heavily in the early years of the sport, that a negative effect had been a concentration on elite athletes to the detriment of the everyday club athletes. Renton doesn’t necessarily go along with that view and points out the enormous numbers of people of a wide-age range who have taken up road running in recent times and have found their lives transformed. He also points to the large numbers of runners in the National Cross-country Championships. He has written that competing in road races with runners of both great abilities but also those of more limited accomplishments, as measured by results on paper, gives him a feeling of being part of a social movement. As someone who has participated in a few road runs in his time (rising to the level of spectacular mediocrity) I certainly concur that the overriding emotion is of camaraderie. His view of competition is that it is as much about competing against oneself as against other people. The targets for many runners and joggers are personal. Although, as Renton, admits with a smile, it is a pleasant feeling to beat the bloke who finished in front of you on the last occasion.

David Renton’s views on track and field today are largely positive and formed by his enthusiasm for running. In response to my question about the decline of the influence of clubs in the sport, he stressed that he was more concerned about the serious decline of green spaces and playing fields associated with schools. ‘After all’, he comments, ‘that is where the culture of fitness and challenge is first nurtured’. Likewise he does not see the overwhelming superiority of African athletes in distance events at international level as a problem but prefers to view it as an incentive to other runners to re-double their own strivings.

It was no surprise to learn that he has a special interest in (and has written about), the ‘Workers Olympics’ which flourished in the years before World War 2 and saw celebrations between 1925 and 1937 in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Germany. He has also written a book about C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian radical whose own cricketing book Beyond a Boundary regularly appears in lists of ‘The Greatest Sports Books Ever’. A different sport, but similar human sentiments apply. Naturally, I was delighted when David Renton mentioned the name of the great Alf Tupper and obviously knew all about the welder from Greystone. The ‘tough of the track’ remains one of the greatest athletes of all time and, if you’re looking for one of John Lennon’s ‘working-class heroes’, is up there with Jack Holden, Ethel Johnson and Arthur Rowe. Had Tupper tangled with Coe and Ovett we may have witnessed a 3 minutes 20 seconds one mile!

You won’t get many stats in this book. But if you value a stimulating and uplifting read, then it’s for you.

Michael Sheridan

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‘CLR James: Cricket’s Philosopher King’ reviewed

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CLR James: Cricket’s Philosopher King reviewed in Caribbean Beat, September-October 2014

Dave Renton avoids easy hagiography in his examination of the Trinidadian thinker James in his Cricketing Marxist aspect, with results that make for lucid, sympathetic reading. Cricket’s Philosopher King is, in the sum of its parts, a working sociology of the rules (and accompanying uncertainties) governing what is arguable the Caribbean’s most beautiful, historically knotty sport. The biographer judiciously and generously outfits his text with direct quotes from James’ own writings, largely from the famed 1963 Beyond a Boundary. Everything returns, much like a wicket-seeking wind ball, to James’ equalising passion in cricket, in his faith that the game could be the ultimate social leveller. “If Resistance”, opines Renton, “can be found in two batsmen dressed in whites, then truly, joyfully, it must be everywhere.”

What would Hal say?

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Not HAL but Hal Draper, whose journal New Politics continues with vigour. Kent Worcester reviews my book Socialism from Below in the current issue, pointing out some of the absurdities of the position that the leaders of my former party now find themselves in as they deal with a scandal all of their own making.

Scan attached (with thanks to RM and AW). You can click on the image to enlarge it.

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When ignorance is bliss

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“Sometimes the classical tidiness of the book form is less important than its relevance to current political debate on the left. This is certainly the case with Dave Renton’s book which is essentially a collection of articles posted on his blog during 2013. What unifies the varied collection of reflections is a passionate effort to re-examine the IS (International Socialist – forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, SWP) tradition and to detach the best of it from current SWP practice. He rescues the legacy of some of the original thinkers from this tradition such as Cliff, Harman, Hallas, Sedgewick, Widgery and others. Renton himself has recently resigned from the SWP along with the several hundred other ‘Decembrists’ and is part of the newly founded Revolutionary Socialism for the 21st Century group. The launch statement of the latter shows that those who have left, in what is the third major split from the SWP in as many years, intend to remain committed to building a revolutionary socialist current engaged in practical political intervention and open to discussions of revolutionary regroupment…”

Many thanks to Dave Kellaway and all the good folks at Socialist Resistance for publishing his kind review of my recent book Socialism from Below, which as he rightly says is a collection of pieces published on this blog in the second stage of the recent SWP faction fight (ie between last year’s March special conference and June).

To Dave Kellaway’s credit, when he engages with what I’ve written about the International Socialist tradition, he doesn’t try to restage the battle between 1968-era IS and 1968-era IMG, but judges the IS group by what it did: “Whether because of, or in spite of, such theories [as state capitalism or the permanent arms economy] the fact is that the IS/SWP related to the working class more effectively that the old International Marxist Group.  It was less intellectual and developed a press with a real impact – the brochures on Incomes Policy in the 1970s sold tens of thousands and helped the SWP build a base among the shop stewards movement. Similarly such theories did not stop it doing good work in building the Anti-Nazi League or the Stop the War coalitions…”

Those who are interested in the history of either group may enjoy an event which SR has organised this Saturday (1 February): a day school on the The New Left and the 1960s, with speakers including Penelope Duggan, Ernie Tate, Jane Shallice, Ian Birchall, Alan Thornett and me.

Lives; running – A Hack Review

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By Gareth Edwards
David Renton’s book lives; running, released in the summer of last year, received little coverage in the Party’s publications. We should have paid closer attention. While a book about running may seem an unlikely allegory for factionalising, lives; running is quite clearly, to use a lamentable term, a prefiguration. As the immortal David Frost once opined on Through The Keyhole, “Look closely, comrades. The clues are there.” Carefully read, the book reveals how plans to establish permanent factions have been festering away far longer than anyone expected. For those of us who have lived through the last year, watching as the “opposition” embarked upon its wilful destruction of our party, reading lives; running is like discovering the road-map to ruination. You will wish you had read it much earlier.

Although the book claims to be about running, it is patently obvious that David Renton has written a book about David Renton. Claiming that it is, in part, an autobiography – a personal account of his own running experiences – is simply excuse-mongering, a convenient cover for his own egotism. One need not be surprised; this is the same exercise in self-justification that oozes from his blog (which even has the same name as the book!). Online Renton presents his writing as an attempt to “re-think” our politics when in actual fact it is nothing more than a capitulation to feminism. And, while we’re on the subject – what is his obsession with the semi-colon? It lies somewhere between the steely determination of the full stop and the half-hearted gradualism of the comma; truly the centrist of the punctuation world.
Of course Renton’s drift from Leninism has been a long term development: more of a long-distance race than a sprint, if you will. As he makes clear in the book, not only has he been running since the 1980s, he has actually liked it. To secretly enjoy watching a bit of football is one thing. It is quite another for a “comrade” who claims to be a revolutionary to openly state that he happily participated in competitive sport. There is not a word of regret or remorse on this question. Blatantly the cold winds of reformism have been blowing through Renton’s life for a good long while.
At various points in the book he ponders on the rivalry between middle-distance runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. Renton would have us believe that, during their clashes in the 1970s and 1980s, the two athletes came to represent something more than simply a couple of blokes running around a track. Ovett was the worker; Coe the Tory. To suggest that Ovett and Coe were some sort of proxy for the class war is, of course, a ridiculous assertion. What Renton struggles to comprehend is that no matter how many races Ovett won it had no bearing on the real world. Already at this early stage Renton was seeking someone to win victories on behalf of the working class, rather than seeing the class itself as the agent of social change.
Indeed, it is noticeable how the organised working class plays very little role in Renton’s book – in particular, public sector workers who run are conspicuous by their absence. With a major part of lives; running set in the 1980s Renton is forced to reference the miners’ strike.  It is illustrative of his general pessimism that the one time he makes mention of the working class is during a defeat, rather than choosing an example of successful industrial action. In part, one suspects that the absence of optimism in lives: running is the result of a flawed understanding about the relationship between party and class on the part of the author.
To use our own analogy: think of the class as a running race. Some workers are at the back of the pack, others nearer to the front. The Party is represented by the runner at the very front – constantly pushing the pace on, finding new gears, re-doubling their efforts to stay in the lead. Round and round we go, more and more laps of the track completed, until eventually we win. In Renton’s view, running is most fun when people are bunched together, a mass of arms and legs and rightward shifting reformist ideas.
In another attack on the concept of the revolutionary party, Renton returns to the cases of Ovett and Coe, exploring the role of their parents in fostering and nurturing their talents. Here I think Renton is, quite simply, wrong. Time and again he teases out how mothers and fathers can impact negatively on runners, without ever accentuating the great value and wisdom they can impart as teachers. It is as though he neglects completely any sort of paternal guidance. As you progress through the book you begin to wonder if he will ever end his criticisms of athletics from the past thirty years. Renton clearly believes that the 1970s were some sort of golden, democratic age for running and at times one expects him to reveal that Peter Sedgewick, Dave Widgery and Duncan Hallas were the founding members of the Socialist Democratic Jogging Society.
Towards the end of the book Renton finally comes clean. He talks of how he once gave up on running, and how it lured him back with its promises of fulfilment, activity and expression. But it has come at a price. When he now runs he tires quicker, finds he is more susceptible to injury, has to run at a slower pace than before. No doubt to a casual observer these references will seem innocent enough. But who in the Party could miss their real meaning? David no longer takes the same joy in revolutionary activity that he once did, moaning that long-standing comrades have caused him injury. His conclusion is to run (i.e. do politics) at a different pace (i.e. a reformist pace). Renton would do well to remember that in the marathon of socialism, the bottles of distilled Leninism on the pasting tables of struggle, laid out at the side of the road of revolution, give us the strength to reach the finish line.

Originally published at: http://inside-left.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/lives-running-hack-review.html

“Lives running” reviewed

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Race aware
Lives Running by David Renton
Zero books ISBN 978-1-78099-235-8
reviewed by John Hobson

After a year in which sport had been hugely prominent, most obviously through the London Olympics, Lives Running is an unusual book which provides a deeply personal narrative of the author’s experience sof running both competitively and recreationally.

The descriptions of early expectations of – and indeed realised – success in middle distance running at school bring the reader into a private world where the joys of acheivement and pain of injury impact heavily in a context where great emphasis is placed on sporting prowess, through peer and family culture.

The author however interjects interesting facts and analysis of a sport for which he remains clearly passionate, most significantly of the oft-forgotten rivalry in middle-distance running between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe that developed in the late 1970s and which reached its peak at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Fascinating detail is provided about these two individuals’ backgrounds and experiences and which in particular furthers a degree of insight into Coe’s trajectory from ungracious loser to Ovett in the 800m Olympic final, to Tory MP and then ultimately to crowned glory as the Chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympics and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and beyond.

As the currently shallow discussions about the “legacy” of the London Olympics proceed, it is refreshing to read an account of sport by someone who was active in the important critique and attendant activism surrounding the Games.

The contributions of such individuals, as people passionate about sport but also about real accessibility and participation will be essential as the memories of London 2012 fade, the corporate Olympic juggernaut moves on and cuts in public funding for leisure services translate.

In essence however Lives; Running is a memoir of one individual’s relationship to sport and the power of the same to ultimately provide straight forward entertainment, far from the madding crowd or otherwise.

This article was first published in the June 2013 edition of Socialist Lawyer magazine. The magazine is sent to all members of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Details of how to subscribe can be found here.

Reflecting on the burn

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Running: “from trouble”, “to assist”, “in fear”, “for fun”, “in a crowd”, “alone”, “to win”, “for the hell of it!”. Running is a time-honoured, universal activity. In the global marketplace, running is also a valuable commodity. The large number of “running activities” or “uses” of running have provided the incentive for companies to create a growing industry of apparel: shoes, tracksuits, sweatbands, pedometers. A burgeoning advertising industry has helped generate and extend the exchange values of such products. Usain Bolt runs fast, wears Puma shoes and requires massive appearance fees to showcase his speed and footwear. Bolt is a fast-moving human commodity.

Lives; Running offers an insider’s view of the multi-layered world of running. This compact 124-page compilation is clearly designed for an audience located somewhere between the highly formalised and conventionally controlled world of academia and the “pulped up” “just in time” world of infotainment. Lives; Running’s style of writing is pitched to readers looking for thoughtful, well-informed prose about changes in globally extended common culture.

Seventeen short chapters are built on three major themes: a long-term personal narrative about the experiences of running, the role of sport in the patrilineal side of Renton’s family and a mini-case study of the class-based politics of two elite runners from very different backgrounds. These three themes, involving very different forms of description and analysis, are crisscrossed throughout the text, providing multiple angles of scrutiny of running as a socio-cultural practice. While it is not a linear narrative in the conventional sense, the book tracks sequentially across the decades of Renton’s life of running and thus provides a solid position from which to explore the other themes.

Renton declares at the very start of his narrative: “[R]unning was part of my life, I ran whenever I could”. His engagement moves from the private to the social and recreational, to the competitive and combative and finally into the zone of the health-focused and the therapeutic. Looking outwards from this personal sphere, Renton fills his account with stories about his grandfather and father. In the detail of his father’s story is embedded a meta-analysis about the changing role of sport in identity development and the wider world of politics and social change.

Renton’s father was an average runner but quickly discovered he was a talented rower. Rowing was, and remains, an iconic team activity. To be successful, the team must be one in mind and body. During his father’s formative years, Great Britain was being shaped by Keynesian-inspired politics. The cooperative, team-based nature of rowing was in tune with those influences. On the other hand, Lives; Running also offers a parallel and emergent storyline about running as a personal and individualised physical pursuit. This narrative is set in the time of neoliberal transformation.

Renton was born in 1972. That was the year of the Munich Olympic Games, in which the US runner Frank Shorter won the marathon and reputedly sparked a national, then international, running boom. If we take this as fact, it means Renton’s entire life has occurred within the time of the global growth and transformation of running that has occurred in tandem with the rise and rise of neoliberal politics.

It is here that the book offers valuable insights into the fusion of his physical enjoyment of running with the growth in marketing, televising sport and the valorisation of the hyper-individualised pursuit of “winning”. As a seven-year-old, he watched the British athletes Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett competing in the Moscow Olympics. Through the eyes of a child he viewed two epic contests: the final of 800 metres with Ovett first and Coe second, and then the 1500 metres with Coe first and Ovett third. With the mind of a socially critical adult, he analyses the role the media played in affirming dominant class politics, with Coe as a middle class hero and Ovett as an aloof outsider. Looking back on these events, Renton is able to see clearly what he had been seduced to normalise and accept in his youth.

In a highly ambiguous section, Renton recalls an image of Coe crossing the line as the winner of the 1500 metres in a pose akin to a crucifixion: “… his head pulled backwards … face pulled up … mouth widens in a grimace … I saw no pleasure in it then and find none today.” This account is a pivotal part of the text. Here we are offered a probing insight into one of the major contradictions built into sport in neoliberal times. Elite athletes are sometimes pushed and push themselves into the dark zone of extreme pain and deep distress. Many forces combine to produce this outcome, where even a gold medal winner becomes a puppet of extremism, in training, performance, advertising, marketing, sports administration and politics.

After one final probe into the trials and tribulations of both Coe and Ovett, the book switches register. The final chapters attempt to rescue the idea of running as a mysterious, magnetic, physical activity that has the capacity to draw Renton back, as an adult entering middle age, into a life of small-scale competition, training in all types of weather, struggling through the pain of physical discomfort and injury and living in hope that his sons will be runners. Beyond the dramas, traumas and controversies of high level athletics, “running” endures as a stripped down “free” activity.

While Renton’s story begins with the arrival of mass participation following the 1972 Olympics, it is silent about the fact that this early stage of the global running boom was basically about and for males. The growth of female mass participation occurred later. There are obvious landmarks of the entry of women’s events into the Olympic program. The sprints appeared in 1928, but it was not until the ’60s and ’70s that middle distance events began. The first time women ran the marathon at the Olympics was in 1984. However, it was Oprah Winfrey’s completion of the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994 that possibly provided the greatest stimulus to far greater participation rates in the type of road running that Renton describes towards the end of the book. His silence about this sudden growth in interest and involvement in running by women, from across the social and cultural spectrum, is a significant oversight.

As a former marathon “addict” myself ,I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The prose drew me into the seductions, trials, tribulations and triumphs of competition. I feel the book successfully fuses personal biography with longer term, generational change and with the forces of larger politics.

Lindsay Fitzclarence, Socialist Alternative