Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Ghost Runner - Bill Jones

Bill Jones first heard of the "ghost runner" in 1984, nine years after John Tarrant's death; researching a documentary about the Salford Harriers, an interviewee pushed a slender, battered paperback into his hand. The book, an Athletics Weekly publication, was John Tarrant's hastily written autobiography, also entitled The Ghost Runner. Unfortunately John's literary talent did not match his running talent and the book was not well written, but the story was absolutely compelling and Bill Jones quickly became haunted by this "ghost", determined to learn more about him, and ultimately to tell John's amazing story as it deserved to be told.

Subtitled "The Tragedy Of The Man They Couldn't Stop", it is a moving and inspiring story, yet the character who emerges from this book is not always easy to like - "self-centred, destructive and lacking in emotional intelligence", driven by anger and a burning sense of injustice. But John Tarrant had much to be angry about. Born in London in 1932, due to his mother's illness and later death and his father's conscription in 1940 he spent much of his childhood in a brutal children's home, his only companion and support his beloved younger brother, Victor. It wasn't until 1947 that the brothers, now 15 and 13, finally left the home, moving to Buxton in the Peak District with their father and newly-acquired stepmother.

There wasn't a great deal for young men to do in Buxton and when a new craze for boxing swept the town, John took it up with alacrity. Although he was never destined to be a particularly successful boxer, his years of surviving the harsh regime and defending himself and Victor against the bullies in the children's home had toughened him up and taught him to fight, and he participated in several matches over a couple of years, receiving a total of £17 for his trouble. This paltry sum was to prove his downfall. Discovering on the fells around his home an abiding love and talent for running, when John wanted to join a running club and enter races, dreaming of the success he was sure he was capable of, he was forbidden by the authorities to do so. Thanks to that seventeen pounds, honestly if naively declared, his amateur status had been compromised; he was banned for life, at home and abroad.

Confident that reason must eventually prevail, John embarked on a campaign of letter writing to the relevant authorities, only to be met by rejection after rejection. By this time married (in 1953) to the unswervingly supportive Edie, and working as a rather inefficient council plumber - the first in a succession of jobs which always took second place to running - John, aided and abetted by his brother Victor, embarked on a drastic course of action. If he wasn't allowed to run officially in races, he would run them unofficially, heading to the start line in disguise aiming to jump into the race at the last minute, where he would quickly speed to the front and stay there until he either won or collapsed of exhaustion. His intention: to show the powers that be just what he was capable of, and his genuine desire to run for the sake of it rather than for reward. Thus the ghost runner was born, quickly seizing the imagination of the nation.

Though officialdom refused to recognise his existence, John was welcomed and warmly supported by his fellow athletes, most of whom understood and sympathised with his predicament. (Former international athlete and main rival, Arthur Keily, even wrote repeatedly to the AAA pleading John's case, without success.)

The Ghost Runner is an incredibly good read, following John's running career from his first "ghost" outing at the Liverpool Marathon, to setting world records at 40 and 100 miles, and to South Africa where he ran the Comrades Marathon - a race which became an obsession for him - as a "ghost" and later defied apartheid as the only white man running alongside the black and Indian athletes who, like him, were barred from official races. In the process he earned himself the love and respect of many who were battling for equality in South Africa.

Although Bill Jones never, of course, met John Tarrant, in researching his life he received full and warm co-operation from John's family - his long-suffering, ever supportive widow Edie, son Roger, and indispensable brother Victor, all of whom deserve medals of their own - and found that many others, including John's running contemporaries, were only too happy to talk to him, and indeed believed the telling of John's story was long overdue. Hence, a clear picture of the man and his remarkable, if all too short, life emerges from this gripping book.

You would need a heart of stone not to be moved by this story (the last few pages had me in tears), which can also frequently make the blood boil. John may have been "the man they couldn't stop" but he was also engaged in a fight he could never win, constantly knocked back by the intransigent authorities, who refused to accept that £17 earned as a not particularly good teenage boxer did not render him a money-tainted "professional" for ever after. (Ironic, when money was the one thing John never had.) John wasn't the only person to fall foul of the elitist "cult of amateurism" which was unforgivingly enforced by the upper echelons, but he was probably the most determined to resist, and became a constant thorn in the side of the AAA.

The Ghost Runner is a great read, packed with fascinating incidents and characters, and extremely evocative of the post-war social and political period it describes. There are some extraordinary descriptions of races, including an attempt at the 50-mile world record which took place on a dilapidated Durban track periodically illuminated by flashes of lightning while rain lashed down flooding the track knee-deep in places, fighting broke out between rival gangs, and a local band continued playing regardless.

I would recommend anyone to read the book; it’s a terrific and thought-provoking story of a man whose life and achievements deserve to be more widely known.