Scottie by Norman Harris © 2008 Last Side Publishing 170 pages
Along with Garth Gilmour, Norman Harris has a special place in New Zealand sports journalism as a prolific author of running books including, but not limited, to The Legend of Lovelock, Lap of Honour, The Lonely Breed, a series of New Zealand athletics almanacs spanning 1962-1966, the definitive Champion of Nothing and Beyond Cook Gardens; the last two titles being autobiographies at different points in Harris’ life.
For me, where Harris really stands above his contemporaries, was as an author, who instead of only recounting the deeds of others, took a step to where few other sports journalist dared to tread, towards the running novel.
In truth, Scottie is more a half-step, for this book about Neville Scott is the dramatization of his life.
As a 20 year old, Neville Scott was a gifted runner but already a troubled young man starting to accumulate baggage, thanks to a traumatic childhood in South Canterbury, where he was often the butt of jokes and relentless teasing aimed at the hedgehog haircut his father gave him, his nervous stutter and gangly build.
His was a desolate upbringing after his mother walked out with a man who had come to fix the roof, with an authoritarian father who was often absent for long periods of time working on construction gangs. In his fathers absences, it was left to Neville’s sister to try and hold the family together, sometimes left with only with cereal to eat.
It was only a matter of time before the Scott family were farmed out to relatives as they went their separate ways. For Neville, that meant moving islands, north to Hamilton, where at high school he we was introduced to running, something he found he had a talent for. But with the recognition that came his way, Neville remained a young man, awkward and lacking confidence in life, something that was to plague him at the Melbourne Olympic Games.
It was the Saturday night dances, brushes with girls with a splash of alcohol that helped loosen his inhibitions, and in doing so, Neville quickly came to rely on a drink for confidence, if that’s what it took, to feel normal like everyone else.
Except Neville wasn’t like everyone else, not when it came to drinking.
As his athletic achievements take Neville to the very top in New Zealand, the Melbourne Olympics rapidly approach. At a raw 21years of age, he contests the 1500m final to finish seventh, showing every indication there is better to come from him in the years ahead as he finishes ahead of the future Olympic 5000m champion Murray Halberg. Two years later, Neville wins the bronze medal over three miles at the Cardiff Empire Games, a forerunner to the Commonwealth Games, this time behind Halberg who wins.
Another three years later, now 26, Scott is still a young man nearing his physical peak, but now drink has taken hold of him, and he is now an alcoholic struggling to hold down jobs and his first marriage. His life has shrunk to drinking during in the day, yet he is still good enough to defeat those pretenders wanting a go at taking down a former national representative runner in local competition, and in that, lurking beneath the ratbag party-animal womanizer, is a man harboring aspirations to again be a champion, aided and abetted by Doctor Whittle, a good Samaritan who organizes local AA meetings.
It is Whittle who becomes the catalyst for getting Scott back in the reckoning for the Tokyo Olympics where his final redemption plays out.
Norman Harris’ Scottie is a sports book apart. Well-crafted, this is a highly readable account of a troubled athlete that takes the reader on a fast paced journey through 1960’s New Zealand, capturing along the way a social fabric from an bygone era, hardly recognizable today, apart from New Zealand’s iconic 60’s running legends; Lydiard, Halberg, Baillie and others who are brought vividly to life by Harris on the page.
If there is a weakness in the construct of Scottie, it is that the final stanza feels too rushed as Scott’s life flashes by – once his athletics has finished – in a series of snippets leading all too quickly to Scott’s passing. That is the weakness of a dramatization over a novel, but make no mistake, this is a rare treasure among running books.
While an overwhelming number of running books are guides, manuals, regale past deeds of runners or are personal accounts of experiences shared, Scottie does it differently. As a writer and athlete, there is much to draw on and to be inspired by from this work.
However you view this book, it is a fitting tribute to one of New Zealand’s most tenacious runners who tirelessly battled his demons to redeem himself.
It’s not so easy to find Scottie, but if you do, you’ll savour this story. It’s a beauty.