Magazine article The Spectator

Out of Sight, out of Mind

Magazine article The Spectator

Out of Sight, out of Mind

Article excerpt

Running for Their Lives by Mark Whitaker Yellow Jersey Press, £17.99, pp. 358, ISBN 9780224082578 Arthur Newton and Peter Gavuzzi, longdistance interwar runners, are two of the most extraordinary British athletes. They are also the most forgotten. This is because the distances they favoured were too long to be accommodated by any athletics event: to them a marathon would have been a mere warm-up jog, their distances were 100 miles, and, in one case, a run across the whole of the United States, when they completed 40 miles a day for 80 consecutive days.

Mark Whitaker has thus set out to write a poignant account of unrecognised achievement. The only thing is, in the process he has written the most bizarre and bleakly humorous book there will probably ever appear on athletics.

First there was Arthur, a mild-looking bespectacled bachelor with the sort of moustache favoured by some English murderers in the 1930s. He took up running when he was over 40 as a protest against the racial politics of the South African government. Only he did so for all the wrong reasons.

A Nonconformist minister's son, he had emigrated to South Africa before the first world war, hoping to run a cotton farm. Alas, for this he needed a workforce.

Unfortunately the local blacks he meant to recruit, or rather whose wives and children he meant to recruit (the men he considered too lazy), had been made grants of land by the South African government so that they could start their own small-holdings and raise cattle, for which they needed their own wives and children. So no workforce.

The result was that Arthur tried to get compensation from the government, which they refused to give. So, wanting to publicise his plight, he turned long-distance runner. Just like that. This, you will by now have begun to realise, is a very strange story, because this middle-aged man, who had not done any long-distance running before, was doing so as a form of political protest.

Only Arthur won his first race, of 54 miles, and within a few years was the holder of every amateur running record from 29 to 100 miles. And it is here that the black comedy starts.

Just as it did for Peter Gavuzzi from south London, the son of an Italian chef and a man half Arthur's age, who did not come to long-distance running for political reasons, but out of boredom. A liner steward, he was bored out of his skull by his job, but, unlike John Prescott, he did not turn to politics; he turned to running round the deck. Round and round, round and round, getting faster and faster, until he too entered the black comedy. …

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