the modern day track cycling poster boy (if he'll forgive me for framing him so) is sir chris hoy. while the cycling press quite rightly praise his every move round a velodrome, the mainstream press do so when the olympics come around; debbie's is currently partially decorated with posters of chris hoy doing what chris hoy does best. this is a situation enhanced by the fact that chris is as pleasant and courteous in person as he comes across on television mere seconds after throwing everything into crossing the line first.
though we have garnered intermittent track success over the years, it is quite a while since a british rider has been quite so dominant on the track, particularly in the now persona non grata discipline of individual sprint, chris hoy's preferred domain until the ioc decided to remove it in favour of other types of olympic cycling. the last to achieve comparable success was reginald hargreaves harris, more commonly known as reg. born in birtle, lancashire in march 1920, much against the trend of the customary british lack of success in international events, reg harris won the amateur sprint title in 1947, a couple of olympic silver medals a year later before winning the professional sprint title in '49, '50, 51 and again in 1954. not unnaturally, such success brought with it a slew of accolades and adulation.
harris's father died when he was six; harris was the name of his stepfather when his mother remarried. his schooling was less than outstanding, and he left without any academic qualifications, entering employment as an apprentice motor mechanic. he won his first race - a half-mile handicap grass-track event - in 1935, the point at which author robert dineen strangely commences his narrative.
i use the word strange less because it is unusual not to begin a biography with the subject's early years in life, but because the chapter is entitled '1935'. it's a theme that is continued throughout the book. cast a cursory glance at the table of contents on opening the book for the first time and you will find it hard to ignore the fact that each chapter heading is named after a specific year in harris's career.
in the years immediately after i moved to islay, i was invited to join the committee of the local annual festival, an invitation that i mistook for a form of tacit acceptance by the great and the good. the undermining of this situation was brought home by an apparent non-sequiteur of regular meetings. at one we would be asked to consider the booking of certain attractions prior to discussion at the next meeting, yet at the following meeting, a visible clique of members would announce conformed bookings prior to any discussion having taken place. several of us left out in the cold began to suspect that we had missed an interim meeting.
this is precisely that which affected my reading of this book. in the chapter entitled '1939', the last dated topic is of october 1942 a few pages from the chapter's end at which point harris was involved in national service. the following chapter is '1945', leaving a three year gap in which we must assume, nothing of import took place. such a situation occurs several more times throughout the book, leading me on more than one occasion, to suspect i had missed a chapter or at least a portion thereof.
this lack of british success at international level was something that seemed almost accepted as part of uk cycling life at the time, and it is interesting to note that harris used his raised profile to its best advantage. on receipt of the daily record sportsman of the year award in 1950, (the precursor to the bbc's sports personality of the year) he used the opportunity to point out one or two deficiencies in the system that he felt maintained this lowly status quo. it is a telling state of affairs that nothing seems to have changed between this speech and the latter part of the 20th century when lottery funding began to host the changes proposed by harris.
"We have in this country a lot of very fine athletes, cricketers, footballers and what have you. Yet somehow or other, when it comes to international competition, generally speaking we seem to fall just a little too short of the mark. I can't help thinking that if people here in this country of ours were given anyhting like 50 percent of the facility that is given to our opponents from the continent, that the prestige of this nation would be upheld in a very much better manner."
that harris made this speech at all was not only due to his status, but a lack of temerity in speaking out against what he saw as an impediment to his further progress. by all accounts, reg harris was far less interested in the fortunes of his fellow competitors than in his own. his success apparently brought with it what can only be deemed delusions of grandeur, outwardly evident by his elevated mode of dress and, as dineen states in the subsequent paragraph following the above quote 'Harris once spoke with an accent that could have 'drawn pigeons from the sky' yet nearly all trace of his lancashire accent was gone.'
the book is subtitled 'the rise and fall of britain's greatest cyclist', emphasised by a back cover quote 'He conquered his sport like no Briton had ever done, but then fell further into disgrace than anybody knew.' that, to me, suggested dodgy and underhand dealings which would bring a flush to the cheeks at the point of reading. what transpires, however, is considerably less salacious, though his eye for the ladies did not endear him to many, least of all the women to which he was married at the time.
as mentioned above, harris seemed often preoccupied with money and success, two factors that he not unnaturally saw as interlinked. but if we consider the plight of the professional track cyclist in the 1950s, it was a far more hand to mouth existence than that of the current crop of lottery funded individuals. large portions of harris's annual income depended on winning. though he was sponsored for much of his career by raleigh bicycles of nottingham, this did not amount to the multi-million pound deals enjoyed by the likes of bradley wiggins and the substantial sums by way of sponsorship remuneration that chris hoy et al are set to enjoy.
harris's retired from top level competition in 1957 continuing his career by devoting himself to various business interests, including the purchase of fallowfield stadium which he renamed harris stadium. few of these ventures covered him in glory or added substantially to his income, but as dineen states in respect of his purchase of fallowfiled velodrome 'he soon found that he had taken charge of the stadium ahead of the most precipitous downturn in cycling's popularity' up until this point, with little prior knowledge of harris's career, i found it necessary and perfectly equitable to accept the author's accuracy in the recounting of events. however, the following paragraph contains an inaccuracy of rather substantial proportions that had me wondering.
according to dineen, in 1959, Ford produced its first Mini...', only the mini had nothing to do with the ford motor company, being the product of the british motor corporation. on the following page dineen continues 'Shortly afterwards, the Morris Minor - that other ubiquitous hatchback, had become the first British car to sell 100,000 models.' though the sales figures may well be accurate, by no stretch of the imagination did the morris minor fall into the category of hatchback.
no doubt it harms my review to undermine the veracity of a cycling book based on motoring criteria, but along with one or two inadvertant grammatical errors and spellings, i have to wonder just how fastudious has been the proofing and fact checking prior to publication.
it is all too easy, nowadays, to consider a cycling personality to be always a cycling personality; it is hard to imagine sir chris hoy arriving at a bicycle store as sales rep for trek bikes. in the 1950s however, that was often a prime consideration for a former champion track cyclist, and though harris's subsequent business life featured several failed ventures, i can't say i found any of them to have been completely distasteful. after a career of having to look out for number one, it must have been difficult if not downright impossible to alter the modus operandi. additionally, having had the wherewithal to afford the finer things in life, and mix with the upper echelons of society, anything less must have looked imperiously like failure.
though weighing in at 344 pages, the text is well-spaced, making it a less than onerous task to enjoy the read, and by and large, it is an enjoyable read and particularly well illustrated by way of two photo sections. harris's story is very much one worth reading, particularly in the light of britian's recent track successes, not only to provide a sense of perspective, but also to become better and entertainingly informed.
robert dineen's biography of reg harris may have its flaws (which book doesn't?) but it is comfortably paced and well written, with the luxury of a well specified index at the back. harris made a one-off successful yet dubious comeback at the british championship in 1974, settling for the silver medal the following year. he is now most tangibly remembered by a bronze statue in manchester velodrome. robert dineen's biography can but add to that.
friday 5 october 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................