Myth and reality, David Colquhoun

James McNeish
Vintage, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869791230

Jack Lovelock. No other New Zealand sporting star has had so much written about him, in so many different ways. There have now been three biographical studies. His journals have been published, and there has been a film, a novel, television documentaries, and two well-regarded plays.

The reasons for such literary interest are various. For a start, not nearly so much would have been written if he had come second in his greatest race, that 1500 metres at Berlin in 1936. But he won, and broke the world record, something very rarely done at an Olympics. Moreover, those games were recorded in one of the greatest sports films ever, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and Lovelock is right at the heart of it. The political backdrop gives added drama, for those games, the biggest and best-organised ever, were a propaganda victory for Hitler. At the time, that meant those from the British Empire were particularly distressed at how badly their athletes were doing in comparison with the Germans, and the Americans. Lovelock gave them a longed-for victory, and it was considered as much a victory for the Empire as for New Zealand. Of our many sporting triumphs, only Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest was more widely acclaimed beyond New Zealand.

Unlike Sir Ed, however, Lovelock did not grow old, familiar, and revered among us. That, too, helps explain the fascination. Most of his adult life was spent in a very distant world – of Oxbridge between the wars, with all its resonances of Brideshead Revisited and Chariots of Fire. His strange, sad death under a New York subway train adds to the mystery. There are things we will never know about him. It is a story very open to literary embellishment.

No-one has realised those possibilities more than James McNeish. His Lovelock is a novel, of course, which means undocumented events are imagined, others invented, dialogue made up, and the whole story told in the voice of Jack, as a kind of first-person journal. It works well and McNeish uses all his literary skills to very effectively evoke time and place. The opening scenes show Lovelock caught up in Eights’ Week river parties, just a few months after he had arrived as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, on the eve of his breakthrough race at Iffley Road, and the first part of the book is all about the next four years, leading up to Berlin. It is an engrossing portrayal of a young New Zealander abroad, with an intense ambition to be the best in the world.

At the heart of the book, of course, is Berlin. Part of that is about the race itself, and McNeish, here and elsewhere in the book, is good at conveying the anxiety and excitement of competition. His real interest, though, is the menace lurking behind the Games. Nothing remotely like the scenes at a gay nightclub, brutally broken up by Nazis, actually happened to Lovelock, but it serves McNeish’s fictional purposes well. In the last section, a damaged Lovelock reflects on his post-Berlin disappointments, right up to his last moments on the subway platform. Unlike a Lovelock race, the book is best at the beginning, and fades in the final lap, but no-one will want to leave before the end. Few other New Zealand novels have been as popular. This is the fifth edition, which gives it some claim to being a local classic.

Most don’t read historical novels as non-fiction, but that is how many have read Lovelock. There are two reasons for that. One is that McNeish was the first to write about Lovelock beyond the running track, and his interpretation was based on considerable new research, including interviews and correspondence with dozens of Lovelock’s contemporaries – all now available as part of the McNeish papers at the Alexander Turnbull Library. It means the book has information about Lovelock that, until very recently, was not written about anywhere else – even if it is all mixed up with other things that never happened.

The second reason Lovelock has been read as biography is because McNeish says we should. “The narrative,” he stated in his original preface, “essentially corresponds to Jack Lovelock’s real life” and, in a long string of interviews, essays and articles ever since, he has presented himself as the Lovelock expert, expounding at length about what Lovelock was like and why. Two such non-fiction pieces begin and end this new edition of Lovelock. If such claims are made, then they deserve some critical comment.

The essay “The Man from Nowhere: The Berlin Diary” begins the book. This is about McNeish’s research visit to Berlin, and the 14 days Lovelock was there for the Olympics. Underlying all is McNeish’s statement that, in the days after his victory, Lovelock suffered some sort of traumatic experience. This, he proclaims, “is the key to the Lovelock riddle”. “What happened,” he asks, “to turn the man with the infectious grin, the smiling darling of the Berlin crowds, into a depressive?” He is determined to find out, and the essay recounts his detective work – researching the Nazi manipulation of the games, and the underground opposition to it, before he finally discovers a possible clue in the story of Otto Peltzer. Peltzer was a former running star, imprisoned by the Nazis for homosexuality, who was both in New Zealand in 1930 and at the Berlin Games. He could, therefore, McNeish deduced, have known Lovelock. In the novel he does, and is responsible for Lovelock’s nasty Nazi experience. McNeish acknowledges the conjecture but is insistent something similar must have happened.

But it is all artifice. What the essay shows is how McNeish came to conceive his fictional plot and theme. He wants to fit his Lovelock into the Berlin of Isherwood and Cabaret, and he does. However, the actual documentary evidence, including that in McNeish’s own papers, shows a very different story: that Lovelock did not know Peltzer, and that what preoccupied him after his victory was hard training for his next race. Far from being despondent on his return to London, he greeted reporters at the Liverpool Street Railway Station with his victor’s laurel wreath on his boater as a jaunty hatband. Four days afterwards he won his race easily, in front of 60,000 fans, and a little later wrote in his diary how “I am feeling in better physical and mental health … than for many years.” By the end of the season he was suffering the same burnout as he had the previous year, but that had nothing to do with any confrontation with the dark heart of Nazi Berlin.

At the end of the book there is a short reflection on Lovelock’s death – a much more restrained piece than others McNeish has written. Some will still dispute his description of Lovelock as a “fragile and vulnerable personality, prone to depression”, arguing that he could not have achieved all he did if he was quite as delicate as McNeish argues. There is no doubt, though, about the debilitating effects of the severe head injury he suffered in 1940, and the part that played in his death. McNeish suggests the possibility of suicide. Others have concluded that it was most likely a tragic and freakish accident. But we will never know for sure.

At least we are spared some of McNeish’s more fanciful writing – such as the paper he gave to a sports history conference, presenting Lovelock as someone with a “passion so intense it verged on madness”, who went “into shock and was doubled up with pain” on the morning of the Olympic final. Or the article in the New Zealand Listener, promoting a new edition of the novel, about how Lovelock had probably broken the four-minute mile in a secret pre-Berlin time trial. That’s all complete nonsense, easily disproved by Lovelock’s own training diaries, and a basic knowledge of running history.

I am an archivist, so it is to be expected that such distortions might irritate me more than most, but others have been similarly exasperated. Michael King, for example, in a review of a different book, wrote of how “McNeish’s long-established love of mythologising leads him to embrace some stories that simply aren’t true.” People like myths, which is one reason Lovelock is so popular. I enjoyed it too, even though I find the Lovelock story fascinating enough without the fiction.


David Colquhoun’s As If Running on Air: The Journals of Jack Lovelock was published in 2008.


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