When I was a young man I was an international runner who held world sprint records and won medals in the European Championships, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games. You would be right in thinking that training, allied with natural ability, had something to do with this, but it was a book, bought when I was 13, that made it all possible. That book changed my life.
It all began in 1952, when I was 12 and won the Under-13 100 yards race at my school sports day. That victory gave me an identity – I was a sprinter. The year 1952 was an Olympic one and the newspapers were full of stories about the athletes who would go to Helsinki to represent Britain, including sprinters, most notably E. McDonald Bailey, a native of Trinidad, who was the current AAA 100 yards champion. Picture Post carried a double-page spread of him leaving the starting blocks. I cut it out and pasted it on to thick white paper, making my own poster of him. Other pictures (all of McDonald Bailey) followed and soon I had a gallery on my bedroom wall. On 21 July, I remember listening to his Olympic 100 metres Final on the BBC Home Service. He finished third and so won the Bronze medal and came back to Britain with his head held high; only Foxhunter, a horse, had won a Gold for Britain at the Games.
The next summer, now aged 13, I didn’t add any new sprint successes to my previous year’s tally; my sprinting career was on hold. I still hung on to my (silently) self-declared identity as a sprinter, though no one else would have recognized it; my home town had no running track, and so no athletics club or coach. My school was three bus rides away, and there was no running track there either. It took about an hour and a quarter for me to get to school each day. I left the house at about 7.45 but seldom managed to scramble downstairs much before 7.30, gobbled some breakfast and was gone.
One morning in June I rushed downstairs and said to my mother, ‘I had a dream last
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in