Edinburgh Book Festival: Duncan Hamilton, "Eric Liddell: True Sporting Hero", Review

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Duncan Hamilton with Al Senter in the chair.
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Duncan Hamilton has won the 'William Hill Sports Book writer of the Year Award' twice. First, for his biographies of the cricketer Harold Larwood and, second, for his biography of the football player and manager Brian Clough. He is perhaps aiming to make it three in a row with his new book on Eric Liddell, the international rugby player, Olympic athlete and missionary.

In discussion with chair Al Senter, Hamilton wondered if in his research he should try to act the same way as his subjects. He tried this with Brian Clough and then found himself drinking whisky in the early morning! After this he gave up, however, he did try and visit the various places that the subjects had connections with; he did this for Harold Larwood and spent some time in the United States and then did the same for Eric Liddell making visits to China and visiting the places where he worked and latterly where he was imprisoned and died. Hamilton said that his visits to China had been not only to get a feel for the locations that Liddell knew, it was also to meet and speak to Liddell's daughters.

Before writing any book Hamilton carried out an evaluation to ensure the book had a clear beginning, a main or centre, then an end. When he looked at Eric Liddell's life he found just that, firstly, his early life which included the international athletics and the rugby; the middle was his time in China as a missionary and the end was his imprisonment and death in a prison camp.

Eric Liddell and his brother Robert were sent to Eltham College in the southern part of London, a school which accepted the sons of missionaries for their education. His parents and his sister returned to China to resume their work as missionaries. Then from school he went to the University of Edinburgh where he graduated with a degree of Batchelor of Science just after the Paris Olympics.

Of course Liddell gained almost world-wide fame by his stand in refusing to run the 100 metres final at the Olympic Games in Paris in the summer of 1924 because it would take place on a Sunday. Nor did he take part in the 4 x 400 metres relay in which Britain finished third.

It was his effort in the 400 metre final which attracted huge interest; Liddell started quickly to put some distance between himself and the Americans who were fancied to win, however, having started with a sprint Liddell, who was in the outside lane, had to keep going. He was closely challenged but he managed to win the race in the end with a world record time which then became a European record and which stood until the Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin.

His great adversary, Harold Abrahams, when listening to criticisms of Liddell's style commented, "people may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them; he gets there." Harold Abrahams of course won the 100 metres that Liddell refused to take part in. Abrahams always maintained that he would have beaten Liddell in the 100 yards Olympic Final but we will never know!

People who had known Liddell spoke of him as a 'saintly' person and the mention of his name would bring tears to their eyes. He was referred to as someone who stirred the desire to be a better human being and be more tolerant of other people. This was setting the bar very high indeed. But the aim of the biographer is to cover everything in a person's life.

Liddell's may seem initially like a 'Boy's Own Paper' story line with the Olympic medal, the World Record and his way of living life, however, the whole of the person's life needs to be covered, warts and all.

Liddell followed the example of his parents and worked first in Tianjin in China and later in the town of Xiaozhang which were some three hundred kilometres south of Beijing. He taught at the Anglo-Chinese College where he was instrumental in the spread of Christian values. He never forgot his sports and taught many of the boys a variety of sports.

After ordination in the UK when on leave from China he returned and married Florence Mackenzie whose family were Canadian missionaries in the area. They had three daughters, Patricia, Heather and Maureen. Sadly he was never to see Maureen as he evacuated his wife due to the proximity of the Japanese who were advancing into the area.

In the end, Liddell was imprisoned in the Weihsien Internment Camp which is now near Weifang. He became the de facto leader of the camp and was greatly in demand because of his impartiality. He was a hugely popular person because of his humanity and kindness. It is said that the whole camp was horrified and greatly saddened by his death; everyone missed him enormously.

He died before the end of the war of an inoperable brain tumour and wrote to his wife on the day he died to say that he thought he was "suffering from a nervous breakdown" through exhaustion being unaware of the tumour. He died on 21st February 1945 just five months before the end of the war.

A fascinating coverage of Liddell and of Hamilton the author.

Duncan Hamilton's book For the Glory (May 2016) is published by Doubleday.