By Phil Hall
The first guided client to be ushered up the slopes of Chomolungma-Sagarmatha by Sherpa Tenzing was brave Sir Edmund. This was the day that the mountain was finally colonised. I wonder, did Sir Edmund Hillary pee on the summit to celebrate the moment?
This happened in 1953 on 29th of May four days before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2nd. The event was clearly symbolic. But what was the meaning of the symbolism?
In the time of empire mountains changed hands. At the Congress of Berlin in 1884 nearly 100 years before, Queen Victoria got Mombasa in exchange for Mount Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro was a card in the imperial pack. That’s why Kilimanjaro makes a little kink in the otherwise straight ruled border drawn between Tanzania and Kenya by its former colonialists.
The ascent of Chomolungma-Sagarmatha was celebrated throughout Britain. New blood was on the throne, the achievement was presented as a good omen for the resuscitated golem of empire.
In 1947 Pakistan got its independence and in 1947 India got its Independence. In May 1948 South Africa declared UDI as the nationalists took over. Humiliatingly, in 1951 the United States put the British establishment firmly back in its box after the Suez crisis. Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and there was nothing Britain could do about it.
In 1953 Great Britain still had a huge war debt to the United States. It owed about 434 billion pounds in today’s terms with a much smaller post war economy. The country was on rationing.
Then, on May 6th 1954 Norris McWhirter helped to orchestrate Roger Bannister’s successful one mile record attempt. The press were not quick on the uptake until they understood the useful symbolism; it was a symbolism echoing that of the climbing of Chomolungma-Sagarmatha. Except this time there was no Tenzing to share the glory with and Bannister was an Oxfordian amateur.
Of course Bannister’s was not the fastest mile a human being had ever run. That would be a ridiculous claim. The people who recorded it would admit as much. But it is implied all the same.
In all of history, from the Spartans, to the Impis of Chaka, to the Berber and the Pashtun and the Huichole, to the running messengers of the Inca and the rajahs, to the slaves and descendants of the slaves of the Americas, to the long-marching Romans, and the expert trackers and hunters of the Serengeti, it is obvious and clear that a distance equivalent to an ‘imperial’ mile has probably been run faster than in four minutes innumerable times.
In fact there are even older records, quite respectable, of the four minute mile being broken in London centuries before by a costermonger.
But that isn’t important. We know that Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia and Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas because these events are important as part of a story that explains the world to us. The events are real because they help form useful narratives. They are also cultural fabrications. E. H. Carr explains in What is History? How historical facts and events can be plucked out of obscurity and loaded with political meaning.
The meaning of the record attempt was powerful; McWhirter and Bannister pulled a white rabbit of a bag at the dying stages of empire. They created a new symbol to feed the myth of western and British male white supremacy in the face of the winds of change shaking the British Empire. Bannister, was well-to-do medical student. Even better; British science could be invoked – medicine and statistics.
It is interesting to ask who Norris McWhirter was, the man who helped arrange for the attempt to be made, who timed the run and then informed the media. The man who, in a very real sense, exploited the idea of world records.
McWhirter was an important leader of the ultra-right in the UK, the founder of The Freedom Association made famous by its opposition to the trade union movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and its notorious support for Apartheid South Africa.
In an empire built on the muscle and sweat and physical prowess of the exploited and downtrodden a relaxed amateur from Oxford breaks the record? Clearly he was an ubermensch of the British empire. An example had been manufactured to help justify a vestigial white colonialism.
Who are the people who run the mile faster than anyone now? They are people from the highlands of Africa, where Europe’s colonies were.
In 1954 the British were not busy timing the running speeds of Kenyan runners, they were busy farming Kenya for coffee and tea and tobacco and putting down the Mao Mao uprising offering 20 shillings for the hand of a nationalist Kenyan rebel.
The current record holder for the mile is a Berber, هشام الݣروج, Hishāmu l-Karrūj, a Moroccan. he ran the mile in 3:26.00 in Rome in 1998. The 1,500 metre distance replaced the mile Olympic records. Noah Ngeny from Kenya is the current record holder at 3:32.07
Margaret Thatcher and Jeffry Archer attended McWhirter’s funeral. Roger Bannister read an appreciation.
Photocredit detail from photo by Elporfavor
Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.