For the Glory (Transworld Publishers Ltd, £20/Audible £23.99) tells the fascinating story of 1920s Olympic athlete Eric Liddell, whose achievements were immortalised in the Oscar-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire. A devout Christian, Liddell went on to dedicate his life to being a missionary in China, during a time of terrible violence and danger, ending up detained in an Japanese internment camp under terrible conditions.
After Brian Clough, Harold Larwood and George Best, why did you choose Eric Liddell as the latest subject for your sports biographies?
Well, I always have to feel something of a personal connection with the person I’m writing about – and admiration for them too. My father was Scots, and so I grew up hearing about Scottish sporting heroes. I knew about Eric long before Chariots of Fire ‘discovered’ him. Also, I think this is a story most of us think we know, but actually don’t – or at least not the guts of it – because the film only covers 12 months of his life. The caption it throws up at the end – declaring that he died in a Japanese prison camp in China in 1945 – was really my starting point.
Now you’ve written the book, how do you view Liddell’s depiction in Chariots of Fire?
Eric’s wife, Florence, liked the film but said her husband was a ‘little bit too solemn’ and a ‘little bit too preachy’ in it. That’s about right, I think. I love Chariots. It’s beautifully written and beautifully shot and produced. But films do what films must to create a cohesive story and facts get sacrificed for that. You only get what can be squeezed into two hours. That’s especially so in Eric’s case. His achievement in winning that gold medal was greater even than Chariots was able to demonstrate. And I have to say that the British Olympic Association don’t come out of things terribly well.
“I wondered at the outset whether his saintliness had been exaggerated somewhat. I can assure you it wasn’t.”
Was there anything you found out about him that really surprised you?
Many, many things. The number of women who adored him, for a start. What he gave up to go to China, including the prestige of attractive jobs as well as an enormous sum of money. Most of all, his bravery stands out. To be a country missionary was a dangerous profession. You have to imagine China as being a bit like a series of Game of Thrones. It was choked with competing armies and mercenary fighters. His courage astonished me. He was shot at, shelled and held hostage – and that’s all before the Japanese put him in the camp. Every month in national newspapers of the time you’d be reading about missionaries who’d been killed or kidnapped. At one stage Eric saved a man’s life by driving him on a cart across a war zone. If he’d been a soldier, he’d have won the Victoria Cross for that.
Several people told you about Liddell’s near saintliness as a missionary and in internment. Where did that remarkable humanity stem from?
From his parents. His father was a missionary in China during the particularly violent Boxer Rebellion at the end of the 19th century. He grew up wanting to be like him. He was the guiding light of his life. But Eric’s faith – which was unbreakable – meant he saw life as a perpetual act of service. I wondered at the outset whether his saintliness had been exaggerated somewhat. I can assure you it wasn’t. He always put himself a distant second. His needs were almost irrelevant to him. This is a man, remember, who urged the camp internees to pray for the guards who were holding them. When he died, unexpectedly of a brain tumour, grown men wept openly, feeling they’d lost a brother. The Chinese revere him. I visited the site of the camp where he died. The museum there virtually belongs to him – and there are two monuments in his name as well.
Is he any less interesting for not possessing some of the contradictions in character that Clough had?
Not a bit. That’s because his life reads like a boys’ own adventure story. It’s full of drama, dilemmas, difficult decisions, family heartbreak – all of it set against the vast landscape of China. I think it’s worth mentioning here that he would almost certainly have won a second gold medal in Amsterdam in 1928 if he’d gone to those Olympics. Put all that beside two European Cups.
What’s your next book?
Ah, now that would be telling. I can only say that it’s something I’ve been thinking of doing for some time. I’m over half way through the manuscript and I hope it will come out next year. After that, I want to write another football book, which has also been on my mind for a while. I have a list of another ten books I’d like to write, but I also want to make time to read quite a few too.