Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review of Conquerors of Time

BOOK REVIEW – New Zealand Herald (Friday, November 27, 2009)

Conquerors of Time
Lynn McConnell
Sports Books

What a great shame this book could not find a home in New Zealand.

Veteran sports journalist and prolific author Lynn McConnell (this is his 16th book) formulated the idea for this book as a repudiation of some theories posited in James McNeish's acclaimed novel Lovelock. However, his focus soon changed to the quality of the 1936 1500m final and in particular the quality of the field in what was the first competitive era of middle-distance running.

It is a book whose protagonist is a New Zealand hero, though it is not a New Zealand book as such, and perhaps that is what made potential publishing houses here fidgety. It certainly couldn't have been the quality.

This could be considered the mortar around the Lovelock foundation stones – The Legend of Lovelock (1964), by Norman Harris and As If Running on Air (2008), Lovelock's diaries edited by David Colquhoun – but Conquerors of Time is more than that also.

It is a fascinating study into a golden era of the mile and metric mile, perhaps, alongside the race for the four-minute mile, the golden era.

Lovelock is cast, not surprisingly, as the lead character, but rivals such as Italian Luigi Beccali, Brit Sydney Wooderson and Americans Glenn Cunningham, Bill Bonthron and Gene Venzke do not sit idly in the shadow of Jack's brilliance.

Each enjoys their time in the spotlight, with a number of classic races re-run with the focus on one athlete at a time. There were the Race of the Century series at Princeton, the AAA champs in Britain, the 1500m final in Los Angeles '32 and, of course, the 1936 Olympic final in Berlin.

This is meticulously researched, by the time you have finished there is nothing you will not know about the build-up to the great race. If you like athletics, you will love this. If you enjoy character studies into the men who became the first middle-distance track legends, there is plenty for your too.

One minor criticism is that there is perhaps too much verbatim drawing upon contemporary tracts.

- Dylan Cleaver

Monday, November 16, 2009

First great era of miling studied in new book

Conquerors of Time is the story of the first great era of miling from 1932-1936 and culminating in the 1500m at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

It is the story of the runners who combined to achieve one of the most competitive eras in the sport, predominantly from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and resulting in the most eagerly awaited event at the Berlin Games.

Forget Jesse Owens' triumph, that was expected in the 100m, 200m and long jump. What the masses were waiting for was the race that pitted the Americans, headed by the world record-breaking supremo Glenn Cunningham, Gene Venzke and Archie San Romani, the defending champion from Italy, Luigi Beccali, the Englishmen Sydney Wooderson and the silver medalist in 1932 Jerry Cornes, the Canadian from British Guiana, Phil Edwards and the New Zealander who was a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University, Jack Lovelock.

Their races, their ups, their downs, their injuries, their lives are all looked at in depth in the lead-up to the race which was going to take a world record to win, but who would the winner be? Even Adolf Hitler didn't want to miss the race, and it was held up while he took his place in his official box.

A revolutionary tactic was unleashed to claim the race, a tactic still in vogue among the top competitors in the 1500m nowadays. Author Lynn McConnell, in his 16th book, studies the lead-up to the event, the plotting that went into winning the race and brings to light new information in the understanding of this unique brotherhood of athletes.

Their lives after the race also provide much fascinating material and McConnell has spanned the globe in the search for information to bring the characters to life. Families have been a great source of information and the story unfolds in a compelling example of sport from a golden era.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

All Blacks deserve better from NZRU

It never ceases to amaze that an organization so protective of its assets, silver fern, naming rights and the like, should be so free and easy with its greatest asset, its marquee team.

We're talking the New Zealand Rugby Union here.

Their team, the All Blacks, is one of the most well known brands in the sporting world – that's why Iveco wanted to be associated with them.

Their team has one of the greatest winning percentages of any sports team in the world.

The All Blacks are probably the most identifiable feature of New Zealand in most parts of the world. Even in the backblocks of the United States the All Blacks have been heard of.

So why, on your official website, in your dealings with the public, and in your own discussions, in-house and out, would you reduce the team to an acronym?

In this case it is ABs for the All Blacks.

Traditionally, the use of the acronym has been the mark of lazy newspaper sub-editors (a common trait of that particular breed) trying to get a headline to fit. And radio presenters, much as they might like to call themselves journalists presenters they are, are equally lazy and lacking in the standards that most sub-editors at least work to.

But, increasingly, the acronym has become part of NZRU-speak.
How can those elected officials and, more especially, those paid officials who spend so much time trying to defend the brand, the legacy, the jersey – and all the other psychobabble used to promote the quality that the endurance of the All Blacks represents – allow themselves to demean the very object that pays their way?

It defies comprehension.

Some might claim it is an acronym used with affection for the team.


It is jingoistic and patronising and totally unnecessary. Do the Australians call their cricketers the BGs [Baggy Greens], do the New York Yankees call their team the NYYs, do the South Africans call their team the SBs.

Not likely.

All Blacks they are, and All Blacks they should always be.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Chocolate Train and Gruyere Castle

It began as a simple quest to find out how to find a castle which at one stage many generations back had been connected with my wife's family in Switzerland.

We knew it was near Gruyere but how could we find it?

Then, in one of those moments of serendipity, a chance look through the travel section of the Takapuna Library provided the answer that no travel agent had been able to give us.

The Rough Guide to Switzerland not only showed that there was indeed a castle at Gruyere, but the best way to get there was to take a special train which was known as The Chocolate Train.

This left from Montreux every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from June to October. As we were traveling from Milan to Paris by train we learned there was a stopover in Lausanne from which we could get a local train back to Montreux on the morning of our Chocolate Train excursion.

All was settled and the booking was made over the internet with friendly advice provided, upon inquiry, about the best times to catch the connecting train.

It turned out that the castle was but one aspect of the special train. Also included in the day's activities was a visit to the Gruyere Cheese Factory and the Cailler Nestle Chocolate Factory.

The train itself was a Pullman Express and its first-class carriages were furnished almost in 19th Century style with comfortable wide seats, singles on one side of the aisle and doubles on the other, with lush carpeting in dark shades.

Coffee and croissants were served during the rapid, winding ascent above Montreux and into the mountains. Rolling countryside with some vast winter shelters for livestock especially prominent and traditional Swiss alpine homes quickly set the scene for what was to follow.

Seventy minutes after setting out the train pulled into a siding just across the road from the Gruyere Cheese Factory. Passing through the inevitable souvenir shop, audio pieces with various language options were handed to each passenger and they were sent on their way with in-depth commentary of what happened in the cheese-making process. This proved much the same as used to be so common in dairy factories all around New Zealand, but which is little seen by the wider general public nowadays.

The ageing factor is a central part of the Gruyere process and the stored cheeses in their cool room make an impressive sight.

Once a complimentary taster pack has been received it is onto a bus to make the short trip high up to the village of Gruyere. A short walk to the top of the hill opens out an impressive, tidy (this is Switzerland after all where tidiness is a byword) village with cafes, galleries and souvenir shops lining the wide boulevard to the entrance of the Gruyere Castle.

Now in the hands of local Government, the castle has several rooms set aside in period setting but it also houses artworks of a more modern type with some especially impressive works in a tower of the castle.

The garden is another superb feature, especially when viewed from above and even on a dull day the brightness of the colours hits the eye.

Lunch offers a chance to sample the local delicacies back out in the village with the soups on offer a special treat on a cooler day.

Once sated, it is back to the bus and train for the last port of call, the Cailler-Nestle Chocolate factory. Visitors are put into respective language groups and given a quick history of the Cailler-Nestle company and then an explanation of the raw materials that go into making the product. An eye-catching audio-visual display proves especially outstanding, as does a museum of the changing technologies of chocolate making.

This part of the tour does prove to test the patience of some visitors whose desire to get to the tasting room is greater than their interest in the chocolate-making process.

A marvellous array of the different types of chocolate is laid out for testing but the mistake to avoid, harshly learned by those who couldn't get their quick enough, is that there is plenty of time, and plenty to sample, if taken at a gourmand's pace. That also proves important once through the tasting phase and into the wholesale room where chocolates of all varieties are well enough packed to withstand the pressures of on-going travel.

It is back onto the train and a return trip from earlier in the day, but also the chance to capture some memorable shots of the Gruyere Castle atop its hill in the distance.

And as one last treat just before the completion of the journey, Montreux appears out of a setting sun with Lake Geneva as its backdrop - the perfect end to a delightful day's exploration in Switzerland. All thanks to the Rough Guide to Switzerland.