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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Death of a Good Guy: Vale Norman Harris, Sports Writer Par Excellence, Creator of the word Jogging

'To A.G. Macdonell and Hugh de Selincourt and other celebrated writers on village cricket, one must now add the name of Norman Harris.'
- E.W. Swanton, The Cricketer
'[Norman Harris] has a sympathy for athletes, and the typewriter to take facts and events and mould them into something really stirring.'
- Noel Chappell, The New Zealand Herald
'I've had an interesting and varied career. Always independent, which made it interesting.'
- Norman Harris on Radio New Zealand National
Norman Hillier Harris
Born on January 24, 1940, at Te Kowhai, Ngaruawahia, outside Hamilton in the Waikato, New Zealand. He died suddenly in Richmond, London, on November 20, 2015, aged 75. He was married once, to Jane (born 1954) in 1983. They divorced in 1996.
He was educated at Te Kowhai Primary School, Hamilton High School and Auckland University.
FAMILY: Norman was the youngest of six children born to Robert Edward Harris and his wife, Rubina Rose, née Moore. Robert Edward Harris was born at St Ives, Cornwall, England, on October 8, 1893. Robert's father, William Harris (1855-1941) was also born in St Ives. He settled in New Zealand in 1879 and established a farm at Te Kowhai, but was living back in England at the time of Robert's birth. William was also a prominent Methodist lay preacher in the Waikato. Robert Harris worked on and eventually took over his father's farm, and specialised in bee keeping. He enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, 3rd Battalion, A Company in February 1916, and on his 23rd birthday, October 8, 1916, his family received a telegram from Wellington saying he had been killed in action. Three days later it was found that Rifleman Harris was still alive. For many years Norman Harris kept a photograph of his father being met by his grandfather William and Methodist preacher-editor uncle George (a conscientious objector) at Frankton Junction railway station in 1919. Robert Harris died in Hamilton on March 25, 1970, aged 76. His wife Rubina died in Hamilton of January 2, 1973, aged 75.
Originally intending to be a teacher, Norman Harris gained a scholarship to Auckland University and trained there for six months in 1957, before applying for a position with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation in Auckland. Travelling to his studies one day, he saw a group of boys taunting a pensioner. Harris began to have visions of writing - starting with The Old Man on the Bus, along the lines of something he had seen in O. Henry's Full House movie in 1952. His story was never completed, but Harris' focus had changed.
The closest the NZBC could find to the journalist's job he wanted was as a radio copywriting assistant (writing schedules) for Station 3XC in Timaru. He later transferred back to his home city of Hamilton, to work for 1XH. In the meantime, in his absence, his parents had applied to The New Zealand Herald in Auckland on his behalf, and in 1959 he took up a cadetship as a 19-year-old reporter. In a sports writing career lasting 55 years, he most notably worked for The Sunday Times and The Observer in London, and in his later years was appointed Durham cricket correspondent for The Times, the newspaper he had wanted to work for since he was a young man.
As a youngster at Te Kowhai primary, Norman Harris had an ambition to score an unbeaten 50 in lunchtime cricket sessions on the school sports ground. Under the watchful eye of his beloved headmaster John Ballance Hostick, Harris built the innings over a number of days, but was caught on the boundary on 49. The upshot both scarred and inspired him. He was jeered by his classmates, who threw him into the gorse. His revenge was to dream up a story, Birth of a God, in which the hero becomes a Test cricketer and scores a century, to envy and admiration in equal measure from his old school friends. The NZBC turned the story into a radio broadcast, which in reality won warm reviews and Harris some stinting praise from workmates at the Herald.
It was the only piece of fiction Harris ever wrote. His mentor at the Herald was the great New Zealand sportswriter Terence Power McLean (later Sir Terence), who Harris came to believe had once harboured unfulfilled dreams of being a novelist. Harris' goal was simply to become a cricket writer. But he got his first break as an athletics reporter, covering an international track meeting at Eden Park in Auckland in early 1962. McLean phoned him the next day, uncharacteristically heaping praise on the second-year cadet's work. Later, McLean took Harris to one side, suggesting Harris' future lay not in newspaper journalism, but in real writing. Oddly, one of the last of Harris' many fine books, Scottie, the story Neville Ian Scott, of an Olympic athlete afflicted by alcoholism, is listed by Amazon as fiction. It's a sports story Harris had waited since that meeting in 1962 to tackle, and is indeed one almost too incredible to be true. 
Like many great sports journalists, Harris had an incredibly retentive memory. In writing his 2010 autobiography, Beyond Cook's Gardens: A Writer's Journey (inspired by Matthew Parris' Chance Witness: An Outsider's Life in Politics), Harris recalled the exact time, place and day on which his young world changed forever. He was lying in bed listening to the NZBC radio news at 7 o'clock on the morning of Saturday, September 3, 1960, in his flat on View Road, Mount Eden, close to Eden Park and Murray Gordon Halberg's furniture store on Dominion Road. The lead item was that two New Zealanders, Halberg (5000 metres) and Peter George Snell (800 metres), had, within the space of half an hour, won Olympic Games gold medals on the rust red track at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Both athletes were coached by Arthur Leslie Lydiard, who Harris had interviewed in Auckland months before the Olympics. Lydiard took an instant shine to Harris, sensing he "understood" runners and running, and was able to grasp Lydiard's training philosophy. 
The day after the Rome triumphs, Harris went into the Herald offices on Wyndham Street and found the newsroom in a flap, trying to drag anything and everything together in order to do this remarkable achievement some justice. Harris mentioned he'd interviewed Lydiard. Suddenly he was taken into a small room in the middle of the editorial floor, sat at a desk with a typewriter and a phone, and told to write to his heart's content. The article appeared as "The Man Behind the Gold Medals" by a "Special Herald Correspondent" - Harris' first byline, of sorts. 
During the next four years Harris was to become the world's foremost track and field writer, producing "perhaps the finest writing on athletics in the English language". And he had plenty to write about. Snell and Halberg competed against international competition in New Zealand in early 1961 and later that year went on a world record-breaking spree in Europe. The high points came on another international tour of New Zealand, in early 1962, when Snell broke the world mile record at Cook's Garden, Wanganui, and the world 800 metres-880 yards records in Christchurch. As carbon copies of Herald news stories went to the New Zealand Press Association, Harris' coverage of these races reached around the globe - including, to his great delight, The Times on Fleet Street.
By the end of 1962 Harris had realised that finding his own way to Fleet Street required taking matters into his own hands. He paid his way to Western Australia to cover the Commonwealth Games, where Snell and Halberg once again dominated the track. Using the example of a Herald sports department colleague Bruce Montgomerie, who produced a rugby league annual, Harris published his first book, Silver Fern in Perth, in black and white on glossy paper, and selling for a mere 3 shillings. Adding insult to injury, the Herald charged him £1000 to print it, but Harris offset that cost with adverts, no holds barred, from corsets to beer. The exercise paid off handsomely - Harris was seen as the authority on a sport which had grabbed the attention of all New Zealanders. In 1963 he brought out a New Zealand Athletics Almanac. His next two books, this time in hard cover from Reed, remain outstanding works in the entire genre of sports literature: Lap of Honour (1963) and The Legend of Lovelock (1964).
Yet it was a short news story Harris had written for the Herald and which appeared as a small, single-column item on February 16, 1962, which was to make perhaps Harris' most famous contribution to the English language: he introduced the word "jogger".  During a live interview with Radio New Zealand National in 2013, a listener texted in to say the word "jog" had been around since Shakespeare's time. Harris replied that his Oxford English Dictionary of 1961 did not have the words "jogger" or "jogging". He was right. They did not exist before he described a group of veteran Auckland runners as "joggers".

After covering the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where Snell won the 800-1500 metres double, and more Snell world records in Auckland later that year, Harris took the opportunity to follow Snell on an unsuccessful tour to Europe in 1965. Perhaps sensing the goose that laid the golden egg was now on its last legs, Harris decided to stay in Britain, though he also covered the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica. He did all sorts of odd jobs, such as covering the amateur Tour de France and representing New Zealand at an International Weightlifting Federation meeting in Iran. In the meantime he had ventured into rugby book writing and, having competed in a marathon in 1960 and a road cycling race the next year, wrote Champion of Nothing: The Testament of a Journalist-Athlete. This title referred to his lack of sporting prowess, not his skill and diligence in writing books. Harris begun collaborating with Australian runner Ron Clarke on another athletics book, The Lonely Breed, which he completed in Skibbereen in Ireland. In London he wrote Kiri: Music and a Maori Girl about New Zealand opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa, a book on cricket, another with Olympic champion Mary Rand, and yet another on soccer's Charlton brothers. More books were produced in partnership with BBC sports commentator David Coleman. 
In 1969 Harris returned to sports journalism with London's The Sunday Times and went on in 1978 to establish the Sunday Times National Fun Run over 4km in Hyde Park with his sports editor John Lovesey and former Olympic champion Chris Brasher. Harris was a director of the company controlling the run, as well as company secretary. He was also a pioneer in furthering the sport of orienteering. In 1981 Brasher took the Fun Run further in establishing the now famous London Marathon.

But Harris continued to interest himself in many matters beyond sport, and his eclectic range of lasting heroes and heroines was revealed in his 1971 book about expatriate New Zealanders, Fly Away People. The subjects included motor racer Chris Amon, US rocket scientist Bill Pickering, actress Nyree Dawn Porter, historian and classicist Sir Ronald SymeBritish Labour politician and barrister John Faithful Fortescue Platts-Mills QC, and Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister Sir Reginald Stephen Garfield Todd, the last two being particular favourites of Harris'. However, Harris' admiration for New Zealanders didn't always extend to All Black rugby players, as he was assaulted by notorious prop forward Keith Murdoch in a hotel while covering the 1972-73 tour of Britain, Ireland and France. Still, Harris' love of long distance running remained keen to the end, and in 2013 he wrote At Last He Comes: The Greatest Race in History about the 1908 London Olympics marathon.
Harris spent his last years out of the mainstream, covering Durham county cricket and living in Hexham in Northumberland. On a visit to London to go to a movie and have dinner afterwards, Harris collapsed in a street in Richmond and died.


Joe V said...

A fascinating life. Thank you Robert for another great historical piece.

~Joe Van Cleave

Bill M said...

He sure was an interesting fellow. First time I've heard of him. I was a runner, but never read the sports news. I wonder how many of his stories appeared in papers in the USA.

Alan Belcher said...

Best resume of Normans life that I have seen. You have done him proud.
Norman Harris was my closest friend when we were at Hamilton Boys High School back in the 50's. We were flat mates together in Auckland in 1960 in the View Road house you mention.
It was from this house that Norman would do his nocturnal training runs (usually after 11pm when he had finished his evenings work at The Herald) and he would coerce me to accompany him on my bike with his spare clothes in case he cramped up during the run and had to put on something warm against the night fogs that were often present.
Norman (Norm) was my best man at my wedding and humoured the guests with his revealing speech at our reception.
Our ways parted when he went to the UK in the 60's though we did catch up briefly in 1974 when he was in NZ to cover the Christchurch Commonwealth Games.
I was born in the UK in the small town of Hampton Hill, located very close to Richmond on Thames where Norman died.
Norman was a loyal New Zealander, but loved his life in England, and often chided me as to why I ever left there. With his passing, a small part of me seems to have returned.

RiP Norm. Alan

Kathleen Macknight said...

Norman, as I knew him this past ten years, was a modest gentleman who made little of his many attributes and achievements.
Always gently encouraging, quick to smile at a shared joke, and sometimes a friend in need.
No more shared music, garden centre excursions, haiku composing or frustrations at failing health.
Missing him every day.