The unforgiving minute, Stephanie de Montalk and Melissa Moon

Running Writing Robinson
David Carnegie, Paul Millar, David Norton and Harry Ricketts (eds)
Victoria University Press, S40.00,
ISBN 9780864736390

 

This book celebrates the distinguished athletic and academic careers of Roger Robinson – the English, Cambridge-educated essayist, editor and literary critic who emigrated to New Zealand in 1968, and is presently Emeritus Professor of English at Victoria University. The tribute, compiled by colleagues and former colleagues at Victoria, collects journalism, memoirs, scholarly and personal essays and poetry by academic associates, runners and friends. The contributions from within and outside academe seem evenly balanced. Some of the best passages are those quoted from Robinson’s writings on running (three books and thousands of articles) which, together with the many photographs of Robinson racing, leave no doubt as to the enduring heart of his life.

Robinson estimates he has run over 1000 track, road, and cross-country races in 54 years. Highlights have included representing England and New Zealand, in 1966 and 1977 respectively, at the world cross-country championships, and, after the age of 40, taking countless elite masters distance titles internationally, and setting age-group records in the Boston and New York marathons. Injured from the mid 1990s, he raced until 2008, also the year of his academic retirement. Today, with his wife Kathrine Switzer, a pioneering woman runner, he motivates, mentors, writes and commentates. “How I wish we had more sports commentators with his knowledge, insight and eloquence,” remarks Brian Turner in a concise consideration of the qualities that make Robinson a top performer – “tactics, training, temperament … hunger and courage”, and of his “astute” scholarship of New Zealand literature. “He knows,” writes Turner, “that, contrary to what the anti-sport brigade sometimes say, sport, when practised fairly, intensifies, invigorates and illuminates life.” Or as Greg Vitiello puts it: “No one else has captured the act of running with more tactile appreciation and richness of language. Nor has anyone been more thoughtful about the sport’s relationship to society.” In a similar vein, Tim Chamberlain notes Robinson’s ability to make everything he undertakes “look close to effortless … Hemmingway called it grace under pressure”.

We learn from Paul Kennedy that Robinson started to run as a schoolboy in post-war London, where, aged 14, armed with a stopwatch and notebook, he watched through a hole in the hedge at Motsford Park’s cinder track as Roger Bannister ran three-quarters of a mile in a time that suggested he would soon “shatter the four minute mile”. Kennedy revives a documentary interview he recorded with Bannister prior to the 50th anniversary of the race: it was the “best scoop ever” and “an outright gift from Roger Robinson” who shared his sources and contacts at a time he was preparing to write about the event himself. (In the interview, reproduced here, Bannister, who had rarely spoken publicly about his achievement since he “hung up his spikes”, re-lives the 1954 race, minute by gripping minute.)

We also hear from Norman Goluskin about Robinson at the close of his running career, of being beaten by him “despite the obvious discomfort caused by bum knees”. “It’s the combination of the competition and the steep hills that makes him so tough,” writes Goluskin, confiding that Roger is “funny, erudite and empathetic. But not when he’s competing. Trust me.” And John Barrington speaks of Robinson’s “unstinting support and encouragement of other runners”, for whom there was always a call “to try for higher goals”. (Barrington, hoping to win the 70-74 age group at the Christchurch marathon, was advised by Robinson, “Why not go to New York and measure yourself with the best?”) “Roger’s great service to his adopted country,” decides Denis McLean, “has been to bring together sport and language, good writing and good running.”

There’s an abundance of memorable writing, each piece worthy of comment. Patrick Evans humorously recalls the Canterbury University English Department which Roger joined as a lecturer in 1968, and analyses the parallels between Robinson and Samuel Butler that enabled “the deep insight … that has made [Robinson’s] contribution to Butler scholarship so distinctive and so much more incisive than anyone else’s.” Lawrence Jones evaluates Maurice Gee’s treatment of sport “as an integral part of New Zealand society”, and as “material for placing his characters in their relationship to that society”. David Norton ponders “literature’s fittest heroine” (Elizabeth Bennett). Helen Small, appraising Robert Browning’s “Pheidippides”, Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, puts running and literary criticism “on the same page”. Belgian-born Heidi Thomson meditates on the “challenges of juggling simultaneous identities in different places” in the light of Robinson’s collegiality and friendship. Joy Cowley appreciates Roger’s and Kathrine’s “laughter, kindness … and a modicum of mischief”.

The book is a rich, warm read, and nowhere more so than in the stories of competitive and non-competitive running. These bring the challenges and rewards of the sport alive. Elite athletes in particular will relive the rigorous training schedules, the keeping of times and updating of diaries, the meticulous planning and execution of races, the “eternal human battle between will and weakness”, “the bravery” required “to decide one’s pace” (Robinson), the emotional intensity of representing one’s country; the exhortation in Fiona Kidman’s poem, “Poet’s Mile”, “to finish the distance, advance to the end”. Wellington participants and supporters will enjoy David Colquhoun’s memoir of Newtown Park, where the wind “funnels between the hill and the grandstand”, and Robinson’s and Switzer’s Oxbridge and American accents can often be heard commentating, “giving a touch of class” to inhospitable afternoons at the track.

Robinson’s lyrical paean to running from his book Heroes and Sparrows (1986), written when he was at the height of his masters career and surely a classic of its kind, is quoted in full by Vitiello; it captures the “joy” of the sport and “daily habit” that has infused Robinson’s life. “I run,” Robinson concludes, on behalf of everyone who has run competitively, or for fun, “to be part of the history of running … because I like it, the simple, rhythmic, effortful movement over the earth.”

 

Stephanie de Montalk is a poet, biographer and novelist.

Melissa Moon won the 2001 and 2003 world mountain running titles.

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction and Review
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