Tim Johnston

Old Bedalian 1959

Bedales alumni have gone on to achieve great things in many places. There have been renowned artists, musicians, doctors, lawyers and all points between, but the list of distinguished Old Bedalian sportsmen and women is a comparatively short one. Right at the top of the list must be Tim Johnston (1954-59), one of the astonishingly accomplished group of British distance runners, including Bruce Tulloh, Basil Heatley, Ron Hill and David Bedford, who made a global mark through the 1960s and early 1970s. A world record-holder on the track over 30,000 metres, Tim was also a regular member of the English cross-country team, competing five times in the International (now World) Championships, with a best individual placing of 2nd, AAA champion and record-holder over 6 miles, and an Olympian at Mexico City in 1968, running prominently in the marathon and eventually finishing eighth.

So, how did a sportsman of Tim’s pedigree emerge from Bedales? “The arts were certainly what was emphasised at Bedales and sport wasn’t necessarily what was pushed at you, but that is not to say that it was frowned on,” Tim begins. “But it was hard to find an outlet for my highly developed competitive instinct, honed by four years at prep school, where there were marks and prizes for everything. I’d shone as the brightest boy in class, and as the school’s best runner. We were being prepared for Common Entrance and Public School – in my case, Eton. When I arrived at Bedales at the age of 13, I was put into Block 4, with boys and girls up to two years older. I was way ahead academically, but equally far behind in basic Bedalian skills like pottery, basket-weaving and metal-work, which they’d been absorbing since Block 1. Also, I wasn’t used to being in the close company of girls. I was constantly falling secretly, hopelessly, in love. It took me a while to adjust.

“In practice, the tone of the school was set by the ‘keenites’, a clique of fifteen-to-seventeen-year-olds remiscent of the Flashman set in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Sport in general didn’t carry much weight with them, but running was acceptably ‘keen’ – along with cycling, motor-racing and baroque music.” A key event in Tim’s first term at Bedales was winning the Under-15s Wet Run (the two-mile, hilly road-run that everybody had to do when it was too wet for games) in a faster time than the one posted by the senior winner. “That was Johnny, ‘Bulldog’, Vincent, four years older than me and the most brilliant boy in the school. He was so demoralised by my beating him that he abandoned running, and went on to become John Vincent, Professor of Modern History, whipping-boy of the Left on account of his columns in the Times and the Sun. Winning that race, and gaining respect for it, restored my sense of self-worth, helped to integrate me into the school mainstream.”

Summer was when Tim came into his own. In the first weeks of the term, the major focus was on athletics: a lovingly calligraphed chart of school records was posted, as well as a list of standards, which were competed for during gym periods (Tim managed to get them all, except the shot-putt). There was a whole week of Finals, and the last day was one of the show-pieces of Parents’ Day. Tim managed to break the School Records at 440, 880 and Mile, was twice Hants. Schools Mile champion and narrowly missed a medal at the All-England Schools. Norman Bellis, the games master, put him in touch with Portsmouth Athletic Club, and in his last term he began competing with the club, achieving a surprise win in a big, South of England cross-country championship. He was excused rugby, which he hated, and allowed to go off and train on his own.

By and large, Bedales was a cheerful, friendly place. I never dreaded the start of term, as I had done at prep school. It inculcated a sense of adventure, encouraged you to believe in yourself, have a go at new things. There was also an implicit lack of respect for authority, a tendency to question the status quo. That sometimes got me into trouble, but in the long-term it probably helped me in competitive terms. In sport, humility and respect will get you nowhere. And of course the main thing was that you were given plenty of scope to do your own thing — in my case, running, cycling and endlessly disassembling and reassembling my bike in the shack beside the car park that a group of us had appropriated in the freebooting Bedalian tradition.

I enjoyed languages and maths, because I was good at them and they required little work. Unfortunately, I was pushed by Roy Wake and my father into specialising in history, which I liked and was good at, but I objected to the amount of work it required, which interfered with my main passion, which at that time was cycling, far more so than running. Every afternoon after games, I followed the Radio Luxembourg and Radio Europe live commentaries on the Tour de France; a boy in my dorm had a portable radio, a rarity then. It was certainly good for my French. A group of us restarted the Le Mans (which had been allowed to lapse after the inaugural 1954 event). The ‘keenest’ thing in those days was motor-racing. We would jump on our bikes, labour up 1-in-4 Harting Hill and tear down to Goodwood to watch Moss, Hawthorn, Brabham, Scott-Brown…. Nobody paid the exorbitant six-shilling entry fee. There was a special tree which you climbed to get in. Some of the keenites managed to blag their way into the pits. I think the Printing Works used to run up phony passes for them.”

At university, Tim’s athletics career began to flourish in earnest. Cross-country provided a route up the pecking order, first at university, then national, and finally international level, where he found himself competing against — and sometimes beating — international stars of the class of Frenchman Michel Jazy, Moroccan Abdel Rhadi and Belgian Gaston Roelants. Tim’s exact contemporary at Cambridge was the great Australian miler Herb Elliott, fresh from his 1500-metre gold medal and world record at the Rome Olympics, who was to be a lifelong influence on him. “As we laboured through the Cambridgeshire mud, he’d tell me that when you were hurting you shouldn’t slow down, but run harder. It might hurt, but you’d get to the finish quicker, and it would hurt the other bloke a lot more! As well as outstanding ability, he had this amazing determination. When it mattered to him, he simply refused to be beaten. In the University Mile trials, former schoolboy champion Martin Heath had a 10-metre lead with 250 to go. Herb’s head was lolling; he’d given up. Then someone yelled: ‘Come on Elliott, you’re going to lose your unbeaten record!’ It was like a kick in the pants. He straightened up, opened out that famous stride, and caught Martin on the line.”

By 1967, it was clear that Tim had a good chance of representing Great Britain in the next year’s Olympics in Mexico City. Huge controversy had surrounded the choice of the smog-ridden, 2,200-metre-high city as a venue for long-distance athletics events and Tim, who spent most of 1967/68 in Mexico in a bid to acclimatise to the demanding conditions, still reserves particular scorn for the lack of foresight of the International Olympic Committee. “It was obvious what would happen and it made a lot of the middle and long-distance races unfair.”  Jim Ryun was much the best 1500 metre runner and would have won easily at sea level; Ron Clarke would probably have run away with the 10,000.” In the marathon itself, Tim had chased a break at 15 km. by three of the favourites, Temu of Kenya and Wolde of Ethiopia, who’d won gold and silver in the 10,000 metres, and Gaston Roelants of Belgium, World Cross-Country Champion, and he was leading the race at the halfway mark. Soon afterwards, Roelants dropped off with stitch, and Tim knew he only had to stay there to get a medal. But then, approaching 25 km., the two Africans raised the pace again and he couldn’t respond. Suffering from stitch – the fate of many fancied runners in those high-altitude games – his heart no longer in it, he drifted back into eighth place. Wolde won easily. At 30 km Tim passed Temu, walking. “I was a novice at the marathon,” he remarks ruefully. “If I’d not tried to go with every change of pace – as if it was a cross-country race – I could have got a medal on one leg!”

Before leaving for Mexico, Tim had qualified as a solicitor. “I did articles, although my heart wasn’t in that either, but Father said it was ‘something to fall back on’, I surely didn’t want to be a translator!” When he came back from Mexico he taught English for a while, before Eli Lauterpacht (now Professor Sir Elihu), his old Cambridge supervisor in international law, started giving him legal documents to translate and edit. Eli told him about opportunities for lawyer-linguists with the EEC Commission in Brussels, so he applied, did a test and was accepted on the spot. Work was fine, pay was fantastic – and tax-free (in his last tax return before leaving England, his net income had been £800). “When Harold Wilson came over later to try and get Britain out, I calculated that, as a middle-level functionary, I was taking home more than he was.” Social life was unprecedented, a magical escape from the monastic existence which is the normal distance-runner’s lot – all those unattached multilingual secretaries… But he developed Achilles tendon trouble, didn’t allow himself the time to get proper treatment, had an ill-advised operation, and never really got back to top-level athletics again. He missed Munich altogether, but, in 1976, at age 35, still came close to making the team for Montreal.

By 1980, Tim had saved enough to retire, having always sworn that he would do so before he reached forty. He left Brussels and his African wife. “Cécile was a Tutsi refugee from the first, 1960 genocide; she needed a passport. We’d agreed it wouldn’t be for ever.” He then went round the world twice, thought about settling in Mill Valley, San Francisco, where there was an enthusiastic running scene and, even at 40, he was the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. He spent several months in the Philippines, where he was introduced to ailing, failing President Marcos, whose bread-and-circuses programme included a series of marathons and road races, in which Tim was still competitive against the local runners. That and a number of subsequent visits would provide the background for a novel, ‘Temporary Visitor for Pleasure’— the phrase stamped by the immigration authorities in visitors’ passports. Back in Britain, he was regularly winning Vets’ (Masters’) races, including a number of ‘world’ events, but didn’t find it particularly satisfying. So he aimed his sights at a quite different business. “In retrospect, it was a big mistake to retire when I wasn’t sure what else I was going to do with myself, apart from running. Having done well in Brussels dealing part-time in old postcards and collectables, I decided to raise my game and go into property. This was the 80s, when you couldn’t fail to make money, and that was the case right up to the point that Nigel Lawson [Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day], by manipulating mortgage relief and interest rates, single-handedly destroyed the property market and bankrupted me, along with several hundred thousand others. Now he gives lectures on how to run the economy — at £10,000 a throw! I understand he is also a hard-core global-warming denier. There was a certain irony in the fact that he’d been married to Vanessa Salmon, a quiet girl, who’d been in my Block at Bedales.”

Never one to bemoan his luck, Tim struggled back to the surface, writing his Philippine novel, teaching English and returning to legal translation and editing, this time at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. “I retired again at sixty-five, in 2006, then did a six-month freelance stint with the Rwanda Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania — a truly shocking, eye-opening experience (they were offering us counselling for ‘secondary trauma’). Every time I try to retire definitively I get offered more work. If and when they stop offering me work, I’m planning to open a second-hand book business, for which I’ve been quietly accumulating stock. Also, I’ve almost finished my second novel, this time set firmly in Britain (though influenced by my Arusha experience), with what I hope will be a more marketable subject: serial killers.”

It’s a Tim Johnston without too many apparent regrets who gazes back over an eventful life. “I do hugely regret that there was no professional running in my time. It seems quite wrong that you were not permitted to make a living at what you enjoyed and did best. Secondly, if I were to change anything, I wouldn’t have trained so hard. I had a ‘mentor’, rather than a proper, technical coach: Allan Malcolm, the Cambridge University coach, who’d started me training on the old Fenners track when I was fifteen — basically intervals, which were what you had to do then to get anywhere. Later on, I largely gave them up as too wearing, both physically and mentally, in favour of Scandinavian free-style ‘fartlek’. But I do think that athletes need a real coach, for confidence as much as anything else. Most of the time, he just needs to reassure you, tell you don’t need to train so hard, day in, day out. I had more basic talent than many of my rivals, and I didn’t need to run the two-hundred-plus km a week that I was averaging before the Olympics. It becomes an obsession, an addiction. Mind you,” he laughs, “I think a lot of runners have that.”

Tim Johnston was interviewed by James Fairweather in October 2013.