Although the book claims to be about running, it is patently obvious that David Renton has written a book about David Renton. Claiming that it is, in part, an autobiography – a personal account of his own running experiences – is simply excuse-mongering, a convenient cover for his own egotism. One need not be surprised; this is the same exercise in self-justification that oozes from his blog (which even has the same name as the book!). Online Renton presents his writing as an attempt to “re-think” our politics when in actual fact it is nothing more than a capitulation to feminism. And, while we’re on the subject - what is his obsession with the semi-colon? It lies somewhere between the steely determination of the full stop and the half-hearted gradualism of the comma; truly the centrist of the punctuation world.
Of course Renton’s drift from Leninism has been a long term development: more of a long-distance race than a sprint, if you will. As he makes clear in the book, not only has he been running since the 1980s, he has actually liked it. To secretly enjoy watching a bit of football is one thing. It is quite another for a “comrade” who claims to be a revolutionary to openly state that he happily participated in competitive sport. There is not a word of regret or remorse on this question. Blatantly the cold winds of reformism have been blowing through Renton’s life for a good long while.
At various points in the book he ponders on the rivalry between middle-distance runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. Renton would have us believe that, during their clashes in the 1970s and 1980s, the two athletes came to represent something more than simply a couple of blokes running around a track. Ovett was the worker; Coe the Tory. To suggest that Ovett and Coe were some sort of proxy for the class war is, of course, a ridiculous assertion. What Renton struggles to comprehend is that no matter how many races Ovett won it had no bearing on the real world. Already at this early stage Renton was seeking someone to win victories on behalf of the working class, rather than seeing the class itself as the agent of social change.
Indeed, it is noticeable how the organised working class plays very little role in Renton’s book – in particular, public sector workers who run are conspicuous by their absence. With a major part of lives; running set in the 1980s Renton is forced to reference the miners’ strike. It is illustrative of his general pessimism that the one time he makes mention of the working class is during a defeat, rather than choosing an example of successful industrial action. In part, one suspects that the absence of optimism in lives: running is the result of a flawed understanding about the relationship between party and class on the part of the author.
To use our own analogy: think of the class as a running race. Some workers are at the back of the pack, others nearer to the front. The Party is represented by the runner at the very front – constantly pushing the pace on, finding new gears, re-doubling their efforts to stay in the lead. Round and round we go, more and more laps of the track completed, until eventually we win. In Renton’s view, running is most fun when people are bunched together, a mass of arms and legs and rightward shifting reformist ideas.
In another attack on the concept of the revolutionary party, Renton returns to the cases of Ovett and Coe, exploring the role of their parents in fostering and nurturing their talents. Here I think Renton is, quite simply, wrong. Time and again he teases out how mothers and fathers can impact negatively on runners, without ever accentuating the great value and wisdom they can impart as teachers. It is as though he neglects completely any sort of paternal guidance. As you progress through the book you begin to wonder if he will ever end his criticisms of athletics from the past thirty years. Renton clearly believes that the 1970s were some sort of golden, democratic age for running and at times one expects him to reveal that Peter Sedgewick, Dave Widgery and Duncan Hallas were the founding members of the Socialist Democratic Jogging Society.
Towards the end of the book Renton finally comes clean. He talks of how he once gave up on running, and how it lured him back with its promises of fulfilment, activity and expression. But it has come at a price. When he now runs he tires quicker, finds he is more susceptible to injury, has to run at a slower pace than before. No doubt to a casual observer these references will seem innocent enough. But who in the Party could miss their real meaning? David no longer takes the same joy in revolutionary activity that he once did, moaning that long-standing comrades have caused him injury. His conclusion is to run (i.e. do politics) at a different pace (i.e. a reformist pace). Renton would do well to remember that in the marathon of socialism, the bottles of distilled Leninism on the pasting tables of struggle, laid out at the side of the road of revolution, give us the strength to reach the finish line.