Let me take you back to the end of June, 1925. A young Scots missionary is leaving Edinburgh for foreign fields. He heads for Waverley Station in a carriage festooned with streamers and ribbons. Traffic in the city centre stops as crowds spill out on the streets to watch and cheer – among them besotted schoolgirls, housewives, sports fans, students. It's an extraordinary send-off for a departing missionary.
It's tempting to say at this point, 'Ah, but Eric Liddell was no ordinary missionary.' But in a sense that is exactly what he was. Olympic gold medalist, yes. Heroic man of the people, maybe. Certainly a life that became the stuff of legend and earned him the right to be represented in the roll-call of Scottish greatness. But the driving force of his life was to be simply a missionary, at home or abroad, in public or in private. And he carried out that role with a consistency, a modesty and an unfailing charisma that seem to have awed everyone who came into contact with him.
One of the most perceptive tributes after his death in 1945 came from a man called A P Cullen who had known him since boyhood. 'Eric,' he said, 'was the most remarkable example of a man of average ability and talents developing those talents to an amazing degree, and even appearing to acquire new talents from time to time, through the power of the Holy Spirit. He was, literally, God-controlled, in his thought, judgement, actions, words – to an extent I have never seen surpassed, and rarely seen equalled.'
Now talk of the Holy Spirit can make folk feel uncomfortable today. Just as the Sabbatarian tradition he espoused with such self-denying conviction that it will define his memory forever, is a pretty mystifying ordinance to people outside some pockets of the Hebrides. But his was the faith that nourished Scotland and shaped the lives of many of our ancestors for hundreds of years, the fashionably maligned tradition of Luther and Calvin and John Knox. This is a religion which can (and we've seen it happen) become a stultifying thing, enervated by institutionalism and factionalism and sheer human fallibility, the love and energy squeezed out of it, its power to change and inspire people sapped. In Eric Liddell it was dynamite.
And that is what takes him beyond his time and makes Eric Liddell not just, as has been well argued, the greatest athlete Scotland has ever produced, but decidedly one of the greatest men. He was born in Tienstin, China, in 1902, the son of a Berwickshire nurse and a Drymen draper who had trained later as a minister and gone out to China with the London Missionary Society, which had earlier sent Lanarkshire-born David Livingstone to Africa. Eric's education was at Eltham College, a school for the sons of missionaries in London, and then Edinburgh University where he studied for a BA in science.
It was at university that he discovered athletics, or rather athletics discovered him. He had notched up several trophies at school and was already gaining a reputation on the rugby field. In fact he played rugby at university level so well that he was soon playing for Scotland, where he formed a dazzling partnership on the left wing with the brilliant Leslie Gracie. He was a fine player, fast, plucky, a good tackler, but although he loved rugby, it was not really his natural metier. He gave it up when his real talent revealed itself.
When he had been at the university for a few months, a friend persuaded him to enter the university sports. He replied offhandedly that he had no time for that sort of thing, but went along anyway. And thus began an athletics career that was to take him within a mere three years to Olympic gold. Mind you, career is maybe putting it a bit strong. His chief focus in those days was his studies, and he turned up a couple of times a week to put in some training at Edinburgh's Powderhall, where he practised sprints and starts to the accompaniment of excited barking from the whippets straining at the leash on the other side.
He took his running more seriously once he discovered how fast he really was, although the training still seems laughably casual now. After that first university outing, he was soon winning so much silver that his mother and sister in the family home in Merchiston Place were beginning to despair of places to put it. In his very first 1921-22 season, he brought home – besides the trophies – a silver rose bowl, a cheese and biscuit dish, a three-tier cake stand, a large clock, a silver tea-set on a tray, a kettle, fish servers, a silver brush and combs, six tea-knives, fish knives and forks, another six tea-knives, a flower vase, a leather suitcase, a travelling clock, a silver entrée dish, a case of cutlery and a crop of watches. No one in the Liddell family ever went short of a gold watch.
In June 1923 he hit England like a thunderbolt. At the Triple A Championships in Stamford Bridge he won the 220 yards in 21.6 seconds and the 100 in a new British record of 9.6 seconds, which would not be broken for 35 years. If that wasn't enough to clinch his selection for the British Olympics team, then his performance the following week at Stoke-on-Trent certainly was. He won all three sprints – the 100, 220 and 440 yards – the last with one of those inimitable Liddell performances which had spectators gasping.
Three strides into the race he was knocked off the track, got up, hesitated, and when officials waved him to continue, sprang forward again and pounded after his opponents. Arms swinging, head thrown back, he began to catch up with the leaders. Incredibly, having given a top class field a start of 20 yards, he overtook them all and collapsed with exhaustion at the tape.
It was one of the great races of all time, and vintage Liddell – a slow start, impossible odds to beat, almost recklessly brave, running (as everyone said) like a man inspired. But inspired by what? I've always liked the answer he gave to a somewhat pious fan who asked him once what the secret of his speed was. He answered with a chuckle: 'Oh, that's simple. I don't like to be beaten.' And that was true, very true. But there was more to it than that. And the man who gave me the clue to what else was going on in Liddell's running was none other than that fine young actor, the late Ian Charleson, who portrayed Liddell in David Puttnam's 1981 Oscar-winning feature film, 'Chariots of Fire.'
Charleson's Scottish coach Tom McNab had to teach him first to run, and then to run badly – because stylistically Eric Liddell was a quite outstandingly graceless runner. His arms, as I've said, were all over the place, his legs seemed to wobble, his head was flung so far back that he seemed to be gazing at the sky.
Charleson just couldn't get the hang of it. 'When I ran the way Eric did,' he told me, 'I couldn't see where I was going. I kept running off the track and bumping into the other runners. Then one day, on the fifth or sixth day of filming, I suddenly cottoned on to what he must have been doing when he ran. At drama school we used to do what are called 'trust exercises,' where you run as hard as you can towards a wall and trust someone will stop you, or you fall off a piano and trust someone will catch you. I suddenly realised that Liddell must have run like that. He must have run with his head up and literally trusted to get there. He ran with faith.'
It makes sense. Liddell's faith, nurtured through childhood in a God-fearing family, had matured in his 20s into a passionate conviction that Christianity was the most profoundly true explanation of man's place in the universe and relationship with his maker. He had a defining experience in 1923 when he confessed this belief publicly for the first time in a student evangelistic campaign in Armadale in West Lothian, and from that moment on it informed everything he did and said.
He believed that his running, which was reaching its zenith at the same time, was a deep expression of what he was on earth to do. Not the only thing. Not even the most important thing. But to run – as the screenplay-writer Colin Welland had him say in the film – was 'to feel God's pleasure.' And the spectator who commented sagely at one race, when it was feared that Liddell had lost it, 'Ah, but his head's no' back yet,' put his finger on what it was that enabled Liddell to go suddenly further and faster than seemed humanly possible. That moment when he threw his head back, opened his mouth and set his chin to the sky, he found something extra, from somewhere. And it helped him to run faster than anyone else in the world.
Maybe in the light of that, it's not really so hard to understand why, the year after his Armadale experience, in the very midst of his delight at being selected to run in the 100 metres at the Paris Olympics, he reacted as he did when he discovered that the heats would be run on a Sunday. To everyone's shock and dismay, Britain's best hope in the 100 metres said no, he wouldn't run. It would have violated something deep within him to have ignored a principle so central to his beliefs. The Sabbath was the Lord's Day and that was that.
He was called a traitor, which hurt him; but a lot of his fellow athletes were quietly impressed. They knew what it cost him to turn down the chance of winning a medal for his country.
However, casting round desperately for something to do with him, the British Olympics authorities remembered his astonishing recovery in the quarter-mile at Stoke-on-Trent and asked him to train instead – in the few months that remained before Paris – for the 400 metres. And that, as his widow Florence told me, was how Eric Liddell discovered that the 400 metres was really his race after all. He told her he would never have known otherwise, never have thought of training for it, because the 100 and 200 were what went together in conventional sporting wisdom.
So, later that summer, in the baking heat of the Stade Colombes in Paris, Eric Liddell lined up for the final of a race no-one expected him to win.
As the competitors got ready to go, a sudden bloodcurdling wail gave them the fright of their lives. Only the Scot in the outside lane knew what was going on. With a swirl of kilts, the pipe-band of the Second Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders swung into the arena, treating the bemused spectators to an impromptu rendition of 'The Campbells are Coming.' As the captain in charge told me proudly some 60 years later, he couldn't resist giving their compatriot a bit of a lift. 'There was nothing the French could do to stop us,' he reported gleefully. Try doing that in the Olympics these days!
He won, of course. At the crucial moment, Liddell's head went back and he surged through the tape an incredible five metres ahead of the field. The stadium went wild. After several minutes, a voice on the loudspeaker tried a tentative interruption. 'Hello. Hello. Winner of the 400 metres: Liddell of Great Britain. The time 47 and three fifths is a new world record.'
The crowd burst into a renewed frenzy of enthusiasm. Next day the Bulletin newspaper concluded: 'This is the crowning distinction of Liddell's great career on the track, and no more modest or unaffected world champion could be desired. Liddell has built up his success by hard work and perseverance, and although hardly a beautiful runner, he has even triumphed over his defects of style.'
This sentiment had been rather more tersely expressed the evening before the race by Jack Moakley, wisest and oldest of the American team, who remarked, 'That lad Liddell's a hell of an awful runner. But he's got something.'
Well, what he had now was a gold medal, and the beginnings of legendary status back home in Scotland. It wasn't just the winning, it was the manner of the winning and the nature of the man which endeared him to people. There were so many tantalising conjunctions in this man: firmness of purpose with sweetness of personality, burning competitiveness with the strength of will to toss it away. And as the thousands of people who stood in open-air meetings to hear him talk about his faith had discovered, so many stereotypes were exploded in him: piety without piousness, a reverence for dogma without a hint of dogmatism, godliness with a huge capacity for fun.
He had need of his sense of humour that next year, mind you, which he spent in Scotland speaking at evangelistic campaigns and keeping at arm’s length the hordes of adolescent girls who were considerably more interested in his muscles than his message. One of them, a 14-year-old Edinburgh schoolgirl, formed a fan club which earnestly required members always to uphold Eric Liddell, to put his photograph in a place of honour and to use the Eric Liddell line (which was a double underlining every time his name was reverently recorded).
Liddell – bless him! – accepted an invitation to take tea with the club, and young Elsa kept the tea leaves in an envelope for years after. She went to all his meetings and goggled. In later life she could laugh at what she called 'the Beatle-mania of the day,' but she still described his effect on audiences as ‘electric’. Like others she recognised that he was actually no great orator, but spoke about his faith with such intensity and sincerity that you were compelled to listen.
In 1925, a year after his Olympic triumph, Eric left – as he had always intended to – for the mission fields of China. Here he was following in a distinguished tradition of Scots missionary service abroad, in which David Livingstone and Mary Slessor are only the best-known names. After that astonishing send-off at Waverley Station, he arrived in his birthplace, Tientsin, to take up a post teaching science at the Anglo-Chinese college there, run by the London Missionary Society for whom his father and brother were already working.
China at that time was a powder-keg: exploited by Western governments, rent by civil strife, plagued by natural disaster and threatened by the Japanese who were already encroaching on Chinese territory in the north-east.
In Tientsin, living the rather comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by Europeans in areas called 'concessions' nabbed by their governments in the last century, Eric had little first-hand experience of the terrible privations suffered by the Chinese people. That time would come, but in the meantime he got on with his teaching and set about energising college athletics, where he soon had pupils breaking records. He also carried on running himself and was soon building a reputation for startling performances.
One race that went down well back home was in Darien in 1928. He was late for the boat back to Manchuria, so after thundering through the finishing tape in first place, he just ran straight on beyond it to a waiting taxi which deposited him at the wharf just as the boat was pulling away. He flung his bags over and then leaped on to the deck himself. 'Fifteen feet,' gasped one newspaper the next day. Eric modestly, and probably truthfully, said it was less. But legend has credited the Flying Scotsman with a 15-foot jump all the same. The story later featured prominently in a strip cartoon about his life in the Victor comic.
Eric also found time to court a pretty Canadian girl called Florence McKenzie, whom he married in Tientsin in 1934. They had two daughters in quick succession.
But barely a year after their marriage, Eric began to feel himself drawn towards the real China beyond Tientsin's cosy concessions. The London Missionary Society asked him to go into the countryside to a village called Siaochang in an area devastated by war and drought. It would mean leaving his family, his intelligent young students and his comfortable life in the big city, but as the months passed he knew he had to go. In December 1937 he left to join his doctor brother Rob in Siaochang.
Siaochang was the centre of a wide field of activity covered by the London Missionary Society on the Great Plain. It was a district the size of Wales, and Eric was expected to cover it as an itinerant evangelist, visiting churches, advising the Chinese preachers, sharing the lives of the people he visited, answering their questions, dealing with their problems. He needed all his celebrated patience for the job. The dreary treks on foot or by bicycle across the miles of alternately parched or flooded land were enough to sap the strength and weary spirit without having to dodge bandits and guerrillas, and explain your business to a succession of Japanese gun barrels. When he stayed in villages, he went hungry if his host did, and slept on the floor as they did. Sometimes he found villages burned out, the menfolk shot dead, their families numb with grief.
Siaochang was right in the middle of a vast battlefield. A few months before, Japan had launched a full-scale invasion of China, adopting blitzkrieg bombing and terror tactics to encourage swift surrender. Chinese guerrilla units were counter-attacking behind enemy lines, but their sabotage operations only encouraged reprisals against the civilian population. The people got it every way.
The Siaochang mission took care of the wounded in their hospital and hid hundreds of women and children in the church during attacks. The missionaries themselves were tolerated by the Japanese soldiers, but it was a precarious existence.
Liddell was deeply affected by the suffering he encountered, but he told the hospital matron at Siaochang – a wonderfully spirited lady called Annie Buchan whom I met years later in her home in Peterhead – that he had never had so much joy and freedom in his work as here. His great fondness for people and ability to talk to anyone helped him to smooth out the daily tensions. As a colleague reported, 'He would reply to Japanese threats with a beaming smile and perfect good nature.' It disarmed them.
Annie Buchan never forgot that smile either. When I asked her how she remembered him, she said, 'Oh, he was attractive.' (Shades of the Eric Liddell fan club here!) 'His eyes were always shining and he had a marvellous smile. But he never spoke a lot. He was very quiet. But when he did speak, he always had something to say. There was just never any doubt that he had this inner power. All the Chinese people loved him.'
By 1940 the whole country was in chaos. Chinese government troops were fighting the Japanese, the Communists were fighting the Japanese and the government troops were fighting the Communists. A village near the mission was completely wiped out. Others were devastated. Refugees who poured into the compound had to be housed in the school because the church was already full of the injured and dying. Annie Buchan's sharp Scottish tongue was no longer enough to keep marauding Japanese soldiers at bay, and the casual violence was sickening. Early in 1941 Liddell and his fellow missionaries were told to get out. They heard later that Siaochang had been destroyed, every last brick and plank of it.
Back in Tientsin, the reunion with his family did not last long. It was rumoured that Japan was about to enter the world war and British civilians were liable to be interned at any time. Eric decided that Florence, expecting her third child, and the two little girls, should leave for the safety of her family's home in Canada. He felt that he should stay behind. He was never to see them again, or meet his third daughter. He died before the war was over.
I've always found the way Eric Liddell died curiously fitting; by which I don't mean that it is anything other than sad and horrible to die of cancer in a squalid camp thousands of miles from the people you love. But what I appreciate is the ordinariness of Eric Liddell, the down-to-earth reality of the life behind the legend. Just as he became the fastest man in the world with an atrocious running style, just as he moved audiences in ways they could hardly explain despite the mediocrity of his oratory, so his end was not to fall dramatically to a Japanese bayonet or in the midst of some great act of valour. It was an ordinary death for an ordinary man, yet its impact was seismic.
He died in Weihsien internment camp, south of Peking, in 1945, almost two years after he was rounded up along with hundreds of other so-called 'enemy nationals' and marched off down the streets of Tientsin to the railway station. Weihsien was an old American mission station, only about 150 by 200 yards in total, into which 1,800 people were crammed. The internees, including several families and hundreds of children, had to clean it up, rebuild the interior, mend the walls and furniture and then organise themselves into a community. Bank clerks, professors, salesmen, missionaries and executives became bakers, stokers, cooks, carpenters, masons and hospital orderlies. Men who had once owned coal mines had to scrabble on their hands and knees for coal-dust to make into briquettes for heating.
The Japanese guards did little to harass them, beyond half-starving them with meagre rations. But life was difficult. There were bored children, frustrated teenagers and confused old people, folk from every kind of background, all rubbing up against each other in too little space, queuing for the toilets and the meals and the twice-daily roll-call and the chores; nerves grinding and personalities clashing and nowhere to escape to. The youngsters were soon running wild.
Little wonder that there were tensions, especially between the businessmen and the missionaries. One young teacher, by the name of Langdon Gilkey, wrote an account of his time at the camp, in which he flayed some of the missionaries for insisting on praying aloud at night and singing hymns at 6am in the morning when others were trying to sleep, not to mention being obsessively concerned with vices like smoking. Reading his book, I wondered where on earth Eric Liddell fitted into all this, since Langdon Gilkey was clearly feeling pretty jaundiced about the camp Christians.
Then I turned a page and read this: 'It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but Eric Liddell came as close to it as anyone I have ever known. Often in an evening of that last year, I would pass the games room and peer in to see what the missionaries had going for the teenagers. As often as not, Eric would be bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the minds and imaginations of those penned-up youths. He was in his middle 40s, lithe and springy of step and, above all, overflowing with good humour and love of life. He was aided by others, to be sure. But it was Eric's enthusiasm and charm that carried the day with the whole effort.'
This is an astonishing tribute from the acerbic Mr Gilkey. Eric, he tells us, bridged the gulf between the missionaries and others in the camp. He did his praying privately. He organised sports for the teenagers, chess and draughts tournaments, dart contests, plays, rounders. He tore up all the sheets Florence had left him to bind up the blades of the few precious hockey-sticks which had found their way into internment. He tutored youngsters who wanted to keep up their studies. He carried coal for the old folk. A Russian prostitute said Eric Liddell was the only man who had ever done anything for her and not wanted to be repaid in kind.
One of the hardest decisions he had to make in the camp was what to do about Sunday games. In keeping with his principles, he said he would not organise games on a Sunday. But many of the teenagers protested and decided to organise a hockey game by themselves, boys against girls. It ended in a fight, because there was no referee. On the following Sunday, Eric turned out on that field to act as referee. He wouldn't run on a Sunday for all the glory in the world, but in Weihsien internment camp he broke his unbreakable principle to keep a handful of imprisoned youngsters at peace with each other.
When Annie Buchan, the former matron from Siaochang, arrived at Weihsien some months later, she noticed that Eric looked different. It was more than the malnutrition that everyone was suffering from. He was walking slowly, she thought. Talking slowly. Looking tired and strained and doing far too many jobs for people. He was also beginning to get headaches, feel depressed, worry that he couldn’t bear everything as cheerfully as he wanted to.
The end came very quickly. He took ill one evening and Annie Buchan, who had just come off nursing duty, hurried to his bedside. 'I asked him how he was feeling,' she said, 'and he said no one had a clue what was wrong. One or two of the doctors were standing in the middle of the ward next door, and talking about Eric, and I just went into them and said, "Do you realise that Eric is dying?" Somebody said, "Nonsense." I went back into Eric's room, and by this time Eric was pretty far through. And he just said to me, "Annie, it's complete surrender." I was holding him. I could hardly hear him. He could hardly get the words out, but he definitely said "complete surrender." Then he was gone into a coma and he never recovered.'
Next day an autopsy revealed an inoperable tumour on the left side of his brain.
Weihsien was numb with shock. Langdon Gilkey reports that the entire camp was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum left by Eric Liddell's death. On a bleak, windswept day in February, they held his funeral. Those who couldn't get in stood in the cold outside. All the 21 nationalities in the camp were represented. Missionaries mingled harmoniously with businessmen. People you would think had nothing in common with the things he stood for were there. And many were in tears.
He was buried in a quiet cemetery in the Japanese officers' headquarters. There, at the windy graveside, the huge company repeated the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, which had been his inspiration.
Outside China, memorial services were held in many parts of Scotland, and in many countries. The news of his death was received here with a feeling of shock and a universal sense of loss. It was felt not just in the religious, the rugby and the university circles to which Eric had belonged, but on the football terracings, in the cinema queues and on the street corners, where once again his name was on the billboards.
A full 18 months after his death, there was a memorial service held by rugby enthusiasts in Galashiels, with 13 Scottish internationalists in the congregation. The speaker told them: 'It's nearly 21 years since Liddell's athletic career in this country closed, and nearly a year and a half since he died. For what other athlete could such a gathering be assembled, in a town in which he has never lived, and a district to which he only paid one or two visits?'
It's 56 years since Eric Liddell died, and the same question is valid. We do remember him today for the lasting honour he brought to Scotland – honour won not just for an historic gold medal, but for the man he was.
This article was first published in SR in 2002