Sports writing as literature, Roger Robinson

Obituary

Roger Robinson, writer for the Runner’s World/Running Times website, puts the work of Norman Harris (1940-2015) into proper context.

We all know, and most of us enjoy, the drama of sport, the physical one that we watch on the field or track or pool, a narrative of high-pressure external action with an uncertain outcome. There’s another simultaneous drama that we can’t watch, but is equally compelling, the psychological one inside the mind of every competitor, a narrative of high-pressure internal action, also with an uncertain outcome. Only the very best sports writers are able to show both.

One who did was Hamilton-born Norman Harris, who died in London on 20 November last year at age 75. If Harris had been a New Zealand war writer or crime writer, that double-layered, external/internal creative craft would have ranked him high in our literary league tables. But he was only a sports writer. That is, he wrote only about something that puts drama, romance, expertise, loyalty, communality, inspiration and significance into the lives of most of the population. (I write on the day of Jonah Lomu’s public memorial.) So Harris doesn’t qualify for inclusion in the New Zealand Book Council’s Writers’ Files, “the most comprehensive collection of information about New Zealand writers on the internet.”

Harris was one of three writers on sport I included, as editor, on demonstrable literary merit, in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, which provided the basis of the Writers’ Files site. The others were R T Brittenden and T P McLean. None made the Book Council’s cut. Comprehensive?

Harris made his living as a versatile sports journalist, starting young with the New Zealand Herald, then moving to the United Kingdom and the London Sunday Times, and later the Observer and The Times. His 24 books, mainly on sport, always shaded into the literary. He worked in several prose genres, including stream-of-consciousness memoir (Champion of Nothing, 1965), bio-fiction (Scottie, 2008), radio drama (“Birth of God”, broadcast 1958), and biographies of Kiri Te Kanawa and Jack Lovelock, the latter skilfully incorporating the Olympic gold medallist’s inner voice, from his private journals, 44 years before they were published, and 38 before James McNeish had a similar idea for his novel Lovelock (which the Book Council does recognise). Harris’s biography of English soccer’s Charlton brothers was lauded by the Guardian as “a story that is more a novel of the north than it is of football in the north”. The Times Literary Supplement called him the outstanding writer on athletics in the English language.

Harris’s most extraordinary book is Champion of Nothing, which probes the emotional, motivational, and literary life of a less than elite marathon runner, a half century before Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and today’s outpouring of such literary weekend warrior narratives. It’s near-Joycean in its psychological intimacy, and near-Stoppardian in the way it introduces legends like Arthur Lydiard and Peter Snell as minor figures, occupying the background like the Hamlet of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That book, and an essay (in Lap of Honour) about a modest Māori marathon finisher in 1962, stand as the earliest articulation of what is now a global social movement, in which a personal best marathon, however far back in the field, can be a life-shaping experience.

Harris led that movement in other ways. In 1978, he took up a suggestion by his sports editor, and created and directed the Sunday Times National Fun Run in Hyde Park, which grew into one of the biggest mass folk festivals in history. Before that, he had given the movement one of its key words, when in a New Zealand Herald article (Feb 16, 1962) about Auckland’s groups of slow elderly runners, he coined or revived the word “joggers”.

Lap of Honour (1963) and The Lonely Breed (1967), essays on runners and races, are the books that best show Harris’s rare combination of detailed research, vivid reportage, and psychological perception. His insight into the fretful insecurity of the seemingly godlike Peter Snell was a typical revelation. Often he used dialogue, stream of consciousness or semi-indirect speech to reach inward.

Harris, then in his twenties, was already inspiring others. “He was the greatest influence in my becoming involved in sports history and sports writing,” wrote Lynn McConnell, a leading New Zealand sports writer, in an online tribute.

Harris retired to Northumberland, and did not have much sales success with his later books, which included an autobiography, Beyond Cook’s Gardens: A Writer’s Journey (2010), and an admired account of English club cricket. He never published in America, the commercial and cultural centre of the mass fitness movement, and his occasional visits to Auckland gained him little public visibility. (A 2012 Radio NZ National interview is available online.) But his niece, writer Diana Harris, reports that Scottie, his bio-fictional life of the alcoholic Auckland distance running star Neville Scott, has been optioned for a film. His achievement may yet become more adequately appreciated.

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