Toughs of the Track

14Feb10

Jogging partner Pete and I were struggling uphill on our third circuit of the park but a cramping calf was about to bring him to a sudden halt and I sought ideas to spur him on across the line with dignity intact.

What would Alf Tupper do?

The run had brought back memories of my childhood hero, ‘The Tough of the Track’ whose 1960s comic strip featured in The Victor, was a required antidote by us lads who in real life followed the momentous runs by posh athletes like champions Chris Chataway and the first sub-four minute miler Roger Bannister plus younger hurdlers like David Hemery and Alan Pascoe: Many Saturday afternoons were spent watching BBC Grandstand from Crystal Palace where the speediest wearing red, white and blue singlets were interviewed by the TV sportscasters of the day, David Coleman and Len Pickering.

But in the fictitious industrial town of Greystone, a most unlikely running hero (the creation of artist Peter Sutherland for the publisher DC Thompson) was the welder’s apprentice earning £1-6s a week, a little man of dubious parentage who slept on his aunty’s kitchen mattress whose diet consisted of bread and marge and more often, a sports page-wrapped bundle of the British staple food: (“Great grub!” .. “If you had turkey and plum pudding, I’d still have fish an’ chips.”).

He lived to run and nothing phased him, tackling hurdles, half miles, miles, 5,000m, 10,000m and marathons over cinders tracks and cross-country mud – the lot. By the time he’d crossed the line in front of disbelieving crowds it wasn’t just in first place, he’d invariably win the championship or smash the world record too by charging past Adonis-bodied opponents who were – as far as I recall – Big Swedes and Soviets who collapsed, cursing at the chutzpah of the little man from the cobbled streets. It not only reeked of anti-establishment but of the Blitz spirit too. Two fingers up to the Nazis and for that matter, the Commies too.

In one story I remember from my Victor for Boys in 1969, “Alf races against the Rakovian champion, Fedor Oranski at the White City. The race is a dead heat so Alf travels to Rakovia for a re-match. Unfortunately, on the way there he has his wallet pinched so has to stowaway on board an aircraft. Upon arrival at Grovic (the Rakovian capital, of course!) he gets arrested as a spy and is about to be interrogated by the secret police when he delivers a punch to the Rakovian Colonel’s nose (“Keep your hands to yourself baldy!”). In a timely intervention Alf is revealed to be the famous British runner, given a compensatory plate of fish and chips (darned resourceful these Eastern Block chaps) and is rushed to the state sports stadium in the nick of time to run against Oranski in the 1500 metres.” (source: toughofthetrack.net).

Compared to the university runners, Alf Tupper was the track’s anti-hero, a selfless underdog, a ‘guttersnipe’ who somehow managed to turn up to races against all odds, muttering to himself as the downtrodden oik he was, dodging the bargings or spikings from toffee-nosed fopps from the AAA’s or the snooty Greystone University .. He responded by thrashing them when it mattered, in his own words: “I ran ‘em all.”

I couldn’t help but warm to Alf’s working class values, far removed from the elitism of British athletics before the days of black London boys like Daley Thompson and Linford Christie whom I reckon he would have got on famously with.

Back in the park, as if the whole crowd were off their stadium seats, Paul and I staggered past the flag and I felt Alf’s ghost tap me on the shoulder. “That was a bloomin’ good run, lads!” he shouted as newsmens’ flashbulbs grabbed our exhausted contortions. “Lummy, I’d better watch out for meself next time!” he said before peddling off down the hill to put the kettle on and work on his LinkedIn profile.

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9 Responses to “Toughs of the Track”

  1. I found your blog post while searching Google. Very informative, especially since this is not an issue a lot of people are familiar with…

  2. I just wanted to say that I found your site via Goolge and I am glad I did. Keep up the good work and I will make sure to bookmark you for when I have more free time away from the books. Thanks again!

  3. Well remembered and written. It brings back happy memories of a simpler time.

    By the way it was Ron Pickering of the famous quote ‘The big Cuban opened his legs and showed his class’

  4. 4 VA Jim

    Roger Bannister must have picked up a lot of speed. I knew that he broke the sub-4-minute mile, but he must have improved greatly after that! *wink*

  5. I too had a great deal of affection for Ron Pickering but you rarely hear about him these days. Even David Coleman is seemingly only mentioned by his Coleman-balls.

  6. Ooh. It was 3.59 wasn’t it?

  7. Indeed, a sub-4 minute mile it was.

  8. 8 Val Howell

    Can anybody tell me if there are any of the original Alf Tupper stories in the Rover published in book form

  9. That’s a really good question. I’d love to read them again – did you hear of anything re-published? Richard.


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