Life imitates art… again!

I saw this story in the paper a week ago:

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Which is refusing to post in clickable thumbnail mode

For anybody who can’t be bothered to scroll around the image, it is an article about a runner called John Tarrant who throughout the 50’s became infamous as “The Ghost Runner”. He had been banned from competing in athletics tournaments in Britain due to having once been paid for sport – as a boxer when he was young and desperate. Despite this he would pop up at major events anyway, leaping the barriers to join a race just as it was starting. It sounds just like a story from a comic… In fact it sounds just like two stories from a comic! Possibly the most famous athletics stories ever written. Just look at this:

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Does that remind you of anybody?

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From The Hornet via the Great British Comics book… phew

The one and only Wilson! This great character first appeared in The Wizard in July 1943. It chronicled the story of this mysterious athlete who became known when he leapt into a race, until then a foregone conclusion, and trounced the opposition. From then onwards he would crop up at different events up and down the country, not so much breaking records as tearing the book to pieces!

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As you may notice the story is called “The Truth About Wilson”, and what was this truth? It was the fact he was born in 1795 and had lived all those years thanks to a simple life living on the moors, sleeping in a cave and eating various herbal recipes that were actually the elixir of life! At many points throughout the story, chronicled by the journalist W.S.K. Webb, supposedly during the year before World War 2, Wilson would refer to old records from the early 19th century thought to only be legends. He would then set out to break these “impossible” records, which were far in advance of the accepted modern ones – and usually manage it! Of course later it is revealed that he was actually alive when all these supposedly legendary records were set up, without the aid of stopwatches!

The Wilson stories were initially “explained away” by the fact that they all took place before World War 2, and so Wilson’s amazing records were “forgotten” because of the war. But DC Thomson had created a juggernaut and couldn’t just stop at one series. So Wilson, supposedly “last seen” in a burning spitfire over the Channel, returned to “seek champions” in the late 1940’s for Britian’s olympic efforts. After this he discovered a lost Ancient Greek civilisation in Africa and competed in their olympics, before going elsewhere in Africa to compete in a Zulu warlord’s “black olympics”. Still later he made the transition from text stories to comic strips in The Hornet, moving eventually to The Victor. Also in DC Thomson’s more “hard hitting” 80’s comic Spike, he was bought back as the mysterious “man in black”. Readers were going to be let in to his identity and background story only at the end of the serial – however their dads, remembering Wilson from the old days, spoiled it for them after episode 1!

However, Wilson is not the only comic strip hero to defy the authorities and take to the track on his own terms. Over in The Rover a story called The Tough of the Track began in 1949. This featured Alf Tupper, a much more down to earth character who worked as a welder and ate cod n’ chips!

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This could be Alf Tupper! (Except he did reach the Olympics eventually)

Alf, too, was thrown out of professional athletics. But his fault was to catch out an upper-class cheat, and then to be too quick with his fists.

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 Again from the later comic strip. Alf Tupper also first appeared in text stories.

And he also decided to join in a race uninvited, and “ran ’em” all!

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Alf also had a long life. He started in 1949, but I have issues of The Victor from the late 80’s where he’s still going strong – and there’s also stories of his apparent childhood which is clearly set in the 70’s! The ageing patterns only comic characters (and James Bond) can manage! The final Alf Tupper story didn’t appear in a comic, but in a newspaper. It was 1992 and the Victor’s days were already numbered, the paper featured a short serialised strip showing how Alf made it to the Barcelona Olympics and “ran” the best athletes in the world to win gold!

Sadly Victor Tarrant didn’t have such a long life, dying at only 42 of stomach cancer. Like the comic strip stars he perhaps unknowingly emulated (mind you he was a working class lad in the 40’s, could he perhaps have had Wilson tucked away in his subconscious when he decided on his “pitch invasions”? We’ll never know) he was forgotten until a researcher stumbled upon his memoirs. They have finally been published as “The Ghost Runner” by Bill Jones. It is right and proper that such an unstoppable and eccentric character should be remembered. But what of the comic and story-paper versions? These tales entertained generations of readers for decades yet ask the average convention goer at Bristol and they won’t have a clue who you are on about. We have, in the words of Show of Hands, “lost more than we’ll ever know”.

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Oi DCT, reprint this!