Category Archives: The Book

Lives; Running reviewed

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(Hazel Potter, in London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter, Autumn 2012)

In a summer where Sebastian Coe’s face has rarely been more than a few minutes from a TV screen, David Renton’s Lives; Running  is a timely reminder that the media’s love affair with the LOCOG Chairman has been a long one. Renton takes us back to the golden era of British middle distance running, interspersing childhood memories and reflections on the Coe v Ovett rivalry with a memoir of his own running career, while exploring the relationships in and around both.

Anyone who is old enough to remember the Moscow Olympics will recall the build-up to the games, not just the US (and potential UK) boycott but the media hype around Britain’s two middle distance runners: Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. Renton tracks this, exploring not only the press depiction of “toff v monster” to characterise Coe and Ovett respectively, but also the differences between the athletes in terms of style, emotion and attitude. Coe’s all-encompassing need to win, driven by his ultra-competitive father, versus the more magnanimous Ovett, for whom running is an important part of life, but not its whole, is a theme largely ignored at the time. In 1980 the press was far keener to demonise Ovett as arrogant and even unpatriotic, whereas Coe was always – and remains –the golden boy, meaning fans of the older athlete were often at odds with family and friends. Renton is one such fan but this is only one of a string of differences, social and political, that will emerge between the author and his peers and parents during the course of the book.

Coe’s upbringing – and in particular his father – helped to shape him as an athlete and the resultant craving to compete and win will undoubtedly have played a role in the development of his Thatcherite politics. His constant need to compete with Ovett and to take credit for his teammate’s performances portray a fear of failure but also a lack of compassion and understanding of the realities outside of the track. One quote from Coe reads: “I always had the feeling that when the gap began to disappear … the rivalry would become greater, and with it his need to prove himself,” and you wonder whether it was, in fact, Coe who needed to prove something not Ovett.

‘Lives; Running” is about more than Coe and Ovett though; while the themes of competition and relationships continue throughout the book it is Renton’s own development within and outside of sport that we learn about. Juxtaposed with this are portrayals of his father at an comparable age, viewed via diary extracts and memories, an Oxford Rowing Blue struggling to reconcile conflicting desires for flesh and faith. Ultimately, neither father nor son will continue competitively in his chosen sport beyond his academic years but both will eventually learn to participate at a recreational level.

Competitive sport is a bond, albeit it a fragile one, between parent and child: something that both can understand, even if it is from a different perspective. In time, sport as a bond begins to extend through to the next generation too, together with a new perception of the pride and pleasure it can bring – but it is not hard to imagine the short leap that is required to become a competitive, Peter Coe-like, parent either.

The highs and lows of winning and defeat are explored throughout “Lives; Running”, for the schoolboy, the recreational runner and the elite athletes but even this is not a simple analysis: how to compare the grimace of Coe against the clenched fist of Ovett? Or the schoolboy’s joy at destroying a field against a middle-aged runner overtaking contemporaries in a half marathon? Does it hurt more to lose the Boat Race or an Olympic Final? And would that pain be worse for, say, Coe whose father’s love was seemingly conditional on success than for Ovett, who would merely be angry at himself for defeat?

The conflicting emotions that the author has with running take years to reconcile and, even then, when the pain of defeat is no longer a concern, injuries will still hurt. The sudden, indiscriminate attack on an athlete of an injury is shown to affect both the elite, including Renton’s hero Ovett, and school runners and it is not just the discomfort that is suffered but the fact that running has been taken away. We learn about attempts at prevention but, in reality, this is often nothing more than a delay until the inevitable. Given that, the perspective that Ovett maintained will surely have helped: if running is part of life then an injury can be demoralising, if it is all that an athlete has then it will be utterly devastating.

The camaraderie – or lack of it – between Ovett and Coe is no secret but Renton shows that sport has the ability not only to provide credibility amongst peers but also to forge long-term friendships through his memoir. We find the author running in his thirties with friends he made in his teens and while other interests, such as music and politics, were key in the relationships, the role of sport is critical. But just as it helps develop friendships, running – and rowing for his father – “a life of movement” as Renton puts it offers an escape too: from school, parents, work, family and perhaps reality itself. The lone athlete will spend hours on his own, doing something he loves and, for that time, the world as he knows it does not exist.

Perhaps the whole of these sometimes conflicting attributes is that, as the author – and his father – conclude, the “life of movement…is a life fulfilled,” with the flip that “A sedentary life is a life voluntarily diminished.” And in a year when Coe’s LOCOG has drummed “inspire a generation” into the nation ad infinitum maybe this message, and the fact that a sport like running costs the participant virtually nothing in monetary terms, is one which should be heard just as much?

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All You Need Is a Pair of Running Shoes

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David Renton, Lives; Running

Zero Books, 124pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781780992358

reviewed by Steve Platt

One of the defining images of the 2012 Olympics is of Mo Farah crossing the finishing line in the 10,000 metres final for his second gold medal. Arms spread wide, head pushed high and eyes popping in a mix of effort, excitement and sheer astonishment at the nature of his achievement, his face is stretched with a grin broad enough to swallow the whole stadium.

It calls to mind an earlier iconic moment for British athletics at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Sebastian, now Lord Coe and chairman of Locog, the London Games organising committee, struck a similar pose then in taking gold in the 1500 metres. Except that where Farah seems to radiate pure joy in his success, Coe’s face in the old clippings is contorted in a grimace that appears to communicate only pain. Where Farah goes on consciously to prostrate himself momentarily in gratitude on the track, Coe’s legs buckle beneath him as if he’s been cut down from a crucifixion.

David Renton doesn’t have a lot of time for Seb Coe. Within minutes of Farah’s victory, he has written on his blog and Facebook page: ‘If we are going to have a greatest British runner ever – wouldn’t you want it to be a Muslim who came here as a refugee, who was educated at a comprehensive and then an FE college, who lived with his partner for years before marrying her, and who worked in pizza restaurants before he was a professional athlete – rather than lifelong Tory Seb Coe?’

He puts Coe’s ‘death mask’ grimace at Moscow down to fear. Fear of failure; and fear, deep down, of somehow forfeiting the love of his father, ‘who made a point of chastising him publicly on his defeat’ by his great middle distance rival Steve Ovett in the 800 metres a few days earlier. ‘“You ran like an idiot,” Peter Coe told him. Peter then kept up a commentary of insults which continued until the press conference afterwards.’ Where Steve Ovett ‘saw sport as a pleasure, as a second priority in his life’, according to Renton, Coe ran as if his life was solely determined by it.

Recalling the Coe-Ovett showdown in the run up to the London Games, the BBC broadcaster Barry Davies wrote that while ‘the British media had painted Coe as the good guy and Ovett as, shall we say, the not-so-good guy … the characters that were painted were not absolutely right. Coe was the more driven, in my view; Ovett did his own thing to a great extent.’ Davies put the media bias in favour of Coe down to Ovett’s reluctance to give interviews. David Renton ascribes it to the fact that Coe was the establishment figure, Ovett the rebel. It was the rebel who attracted Renton’s sympathies when, aged just seven, his early interest in athletics was fired by and focused upon the contest between the two British runners.

Renton went on to be a good schoolboy middle distance runner himself. He broke the two-minute barrier for 800 metres, setting a new school record, at the age of 15, and beat almost everyone he raced against at distances between 400 and 1500 metres until a combination of injuries, inadequate coaching and, although he doesn’t admit it explicitly, a lack of the necessary single-mindedness led him out of the sport for eight years. By the time he returned to running in his late twenties, he was no quicker than your average fun runner; today he describes himself as running ‘slowly and without style, just like a dad dancing’.

Lives; Running intertwines an account of Renton’s running and personal history with one of the great Coe-Ovett rivalry and another drawing upon his father’s school papers and diary, written during his time at Oxford. Public school educated, like his son, Renton senior was an Oxford rowing blue. In the single sculls he beat the future Olympian Tony Fox, whose fourth-place performance at Helsinki in 1952 was the best by a British sculler from 1924 until 2012, when Northern Ireland’s Alan Campbell won bronze.

After Oxford’s defeat in consecutive boat races, though, he gave up the sport. He tells the teenage David later, ‘You do know that you are better at schoolwork than you are at running?’ and declares that he was happy to have quit rowing when he did. ‘If I hadn’t, I would never have passed my degree.’ It’s not what David wanted to hear, given that he ran in part ‘to maintain a bond with my father. I knew that he had wanted a son who would follow him [in business and in conducting the family affairs] … He complained to his friends that I wanted to level down people … By running, and at a high standard, I hoped to gain at least a temporary forgiveness from my father for my many other failings.’

Those ‘failings’ included an ever-increasing disenchantment with the separation and privilege of public school: ‘Endlessly expressing the narrowness of our existence and our isolation from what 99 per cent of people considered life, I bored my contemporaries by pointing out their isolation until they had no more desire to speak to me than I had to them. My hero was another boy, Gobber, who took to a tall building and spat on his fellow pupils repeatedly.’

Where David Renton’s father converted to Catholicism as a student to provide meaning to his life, David turns to radical politics, particularly anti-racism. He sees a continuity between the two, writing that: ‘My father in his youth raged against the “bowler hat”, by which he meant a life predictable from day to day, a life structured always around the same few relationships, a life overwhelmed by the routine of work. He saw that possibility and he rebelled equivocally against it. I share with him that restlessness.’

Renton regards his running as both an expression of that restlessness and a remedy for it. ‘I run because life is short,’ he writes, ‘and there are no moral imperatives save only these: to the weak you owe solidarity, to yourself you owe change.’ Although he wanted – desperately, defiantly – to win in his youth, ultimately he had no time for what he sees as the neoliberal vision of permanent competition. So you win one race, what then? Are you expected to go on to win the next, and the next, and the next, until eventually even the best, like Mo Farah or Steve Ovett or Sebastian Coe, must finally face up to the inevitability of defeat?

There is no doubt in Renton’s mind who got the most from their athletic achievements out of Coe and Ovett and who dealt best with their failures. He even suggests that Ovett was content with defeat in the 1500 metres in 1980, having already won the 800. At any rate, Ovett was the more magnanimous, both in victory and defeat. His response to getting a bronze medal in the 1500 metres behind Coe and the second-placed Jürgen Straub of East Germany was that he ‘ran the best race I could but was beaten by two better guys’, while Coe subsequently wrote of Ovett’s success in the 800 metres that his physical manner had ‘contributed to the tattiness of the race. It lowered the standing of athletics.’

Renton saw in Ovett – and now in Mo Farah – a ‘capacity for warmth, sympathy and human solidarity’ that he has never seen in Coe. It’s an instinctive judgement that others have shared but one that we should be wary of nonetheless. Coe’s relationship with his father, like David Renton’s with his, was complex but not cold. Of Peter Coe’s remarks after his 800 metres defeat, Seb said that he was less annoyed with his father than with press criticism of their relationship: ‘I found that insulting. People were entitled to criticise my running or Peter’s coaching, but not our relationship.’

In an obituary of Peter Coe, following his death in 2008 (when Seb was at the Olympics in Beijing), Seb Coe’s biographer David Miller recalls leaving the Moscow stadium after the 800 metres debacle in the same taxi as the Coes: ‘In the Russian driver’s misadjusted mirror, I could see Peter in the back seat with his arm around Sebastian, the same way you comfort your infant child when it comes to your bed in the middle of the night, troubled by a bad dream. There was only shared grief and love.’

David Renton concludes with some reflections on his own experiences as a father – of two young children – and why he has taken up running again after a further enforced layoff due to injury. ‘When I run I escape the commodification of life,’ he writes. ‘I dislike the way our social existence is organised, so that merely to live requires you to constantly purchase and consume … I am fed up with sports that I watch as a spectator but in which I am not allowed to participate.’

This will be one of the real tests of the London 2012 Olympic ‘legacy’: the extent to which the huge increase in interest in all kinds of athletics and sport is turned into active participation. Here, running is already off to a flying start with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets and parks, towpaths and trails, every weekend. As David Renton rightly notes, ‘To run all you need is a pair of running shoes … The activity itself comes satisfyingly free.’

This review was first published on the Review 31 website.

Why I run

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With just a few other pleasures, running is part of my nature. It is something which I could barely exist without. I run to feel the air cool and my body warm. I run because I want to and because I can. Running has repeatedly surprised me, it has shaken me out of the torpor of daily living. It has strengthened my body and prepared me for days which might otherwise have been stressful or long. At times when I have had to devote every mental effort to a task, running has kept me well.

I have run for the indulgence of physical companionship and I have run to be alone. I have run for the challenge of testing myself, whether against arbitrary goals (such as the time on a stopwatch) or against flesh and blood rivals. I have run selfishly and aggressively at time, I admit, and I have run collectively as part of a team. Running has given me a measure against which to judge myself and others. It has even taught me something of what it means to live well.

I run to live, and when I have run fast my body has been lifted in joy.

[from my book Lives; Running: now available to order from Bookmarks or Amazon]

Tonight: Challenging the neo-liberal games

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I wanted to remind all readers of this blog that I’ll be speaking this evening from 7pm at Housmans bookshop.

Much of my talk will be about the Olympics, about the ways in which the corporations have used them to take over London, and about the individuals who have profited from them (Coe, Mittal, Dizdarevic…). I’ll also speak about the way the Games have been organised as a sporting spectacle, their jingoism, their sexism and racism.

I’ll also speak about my book Lives; Running, and the alternative model it articulates of a different kind of sporting practice: one based on participation rather than spectating, and one which thrives on racing defeats as well as on victories. I’ll use Coe here, again, as a negative model, whose life story points a way (against Coe’s wishes) towards how to run freely.

The talk will be at:

Housmans Bookshop
5 Caledonian Road
King’s Cross
London N1 9DX
Tel: 020 7837 4473
Email: shop@housmans.com
http://www.housmans.com

Entry: £3, redeemable against any purchase
Nearest tube: King’s Cross

All welcome

Why I run

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I run because it is my personality, a trait so deep in me that if I leave it unexpressed, I feel a sense of frustration in everything I do. I see in my life the same traits that I exhibited as a middle-distance runner: a capacity different in its way from the short burst of the sprinter or the stamina of the long-distance runner.

My job requires me to assimilate quickly the life stories of my clients, fields of professional expertise, and even sometimes whole fresh disciplines of the law. I soak these up, absorb them, fire everything into the job immediately to hand. The case learned, and the advocacy performed, the task ends. I want nothing more to do with the case ever again. I have joined my profession late, in contrast to those who began in their early 20s, I will leave it without becoming a Judge or a QC. In a case, in my career, I lack the stamina of a long-distance runner, who can perform the same task in infinite repetitions. Unlike them I rejoice when I stop.

With the same joy in creation and the same aversion to the necessary task of correction, I write.

[from my book Lives; Running: now available to order from Bookmarks or Amazon]

The London Olympics: challenging the neo-liberal games

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7pm, Wednesday 8th August

The Olympics are a windfall for the privileged: construction companies (who have been bloated by building contracts worth £12 billion), the organisers (16 of whom are on salaries of over £150,000 per year) and East End landlords, who have used the Games to evict thousands of tenants. Providing security for the event has resulted in an unprecedented militarisation of London. But has it always been like this?

David Renton, the author of ‘Lives; Running’ (Zero Books, summer 2012), reaches into the history of the Games to tell an alternative story of protest and hope.

David is joined by Gareth Edwards, who gives a socialist take on sports, politics and money on his blog at http://inside-left.blogspot.co.uk/

This event is part of the London’s Burning series at Housmans.

Event information

Housmans Bookshop
5 Caledonian Road
King’s Cross
London N1 9DX
Tel: 020 7837 4473
Email: shop@housmans.com
http://www.housmans.com

Entry: £3, redeemable against any purchase
Nearest tube: King’s Cross

Why I run

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I run to see the same city differently. Leaving my house one October morning before breakfast, I find the pavement on which I run deserted. A squirrel, hearing me approach, looks astonished to find her London occupied by any other being. She stares in growing anxiety as I approach. Only when I am almost at her feet does she finally turn and bound away, to the grass, the safety of a tree. In the street, the cars are still. As I approach the park in which I mainly run, I see no people. The grass is damp and the morning cool. I breathe it deep into my lungs. I seem to be able to see further into the distance than the London work-day air usually allows.

The day itself is a work of autumn beauty. I see a tree, its leaves hanging down in showers of copper. Above me, the clouds are low, cut into clumps of cotton. It is a rare privilege to have all this to enjoy, selfishly, alone. My body relaxes into the morning. My stride tentatively lengthens, I work my arms alongside my legs.

I return home to my partner and our boys, I am renewed.

[from my book Lives; Running: the book is now available to order from Bookmarks and the e-book from Amazon]