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This Is What I Am
1940 – A Prelude
On a pleasant, warm morning in an already strange wartime spring, the hourly train to Sidcup was making its stop–start way out of central London. Looking down over the grey rooftops, passengers could work out the hidden lines of streets from the high-standing canopies of roadside trees, now coming fast into leaf. At the end of almost every terrace, rain-washed cricket stumps and goalposts had been chalked unevenly onto walls. But in the avenues and parks, along the pavements and back alleys, it seemed – to the eight-year-old boy drawing figures on the grimy carriage window – as if nothing was moving, as if the entire world had given up and fled.
Months before, there'd been other trains – hundreds of trains – trains draining every British city of its young, but the boy, who was called John, had not been among them. Now, finally, it was his turn for a ride on a train, not quite alone and not with the guilty thrill of evacuation, either. John's company, as the train shuffled ever deeper into the suburbs, was the only three other people he'd ever really known: his mother and father and his impassive younger brother, Victor, each one falling further into silence as the steam swept behind them and as John's fragile mother turned a face shining with tears towards the sunlight.
As Sidcup station drew nearer, the family ran out of things to say. John's parents could find no fresh words of encouragement. Every expression of hope had been exhausted. Everything would soon be back to normal, they promised. John's mother would be well again. The war would be over and won, in weeks, not even months, if the papers were to be believed. John shouldn't worry, and Victor, thankfully, would have an older brother to look out for him. We'll come and see you just as often as Hitler allows. We'll write and send you pocket money. We won't leave you forever. We love you. Don't cry.
Just a few strides from the station and there it was. Not the warm evacuee's embrace of a welcoming surrogate family or the wartime sanctuary of a hilltop farm. Instead, the brothers were entering a children's home in Kent, the Lamorbey Children's Home, so perfectly framed by its enormous circular park of arching deciduous trees that for a moment even John's downcast heart must have soared after the family's gloomy walk to its gates.
For a few hours – days at best – the boys would be buoyed by the promises of their departing parents. But what was to follow in the dreadful, lonely months and years ahead would extinguish any first-felt sense of hope and expectation. At just eight years of age, John's childhood was over. What he would subsequently brand a 'living hell' had begun.
John's new companions were not gleeful evacuees but the detritus of London's slums. Kids in care. Kids who spoke with their fists. Tribal urchins who coagulated naturally into feral gangs and who bullied outsiders and loners without mercy. To prevent anarchy, the staff at John and Victor's new 'home' perpetuated an ethos in which beatings were the norm and ritual humiliation often seemed the sole guiding principle. A boy who pissed in his bed, for instance, would have to stand on public display with the urine-soaked sheet draped over his head.
For almost seven years, this was to be John's home. He'd be a teenager before he was free of it, if indeed he was ever truly free of it. To the few who really knew John Tarrant, this was where he had been made. Every truculent, bitter outburst; every draining and debilitating race; every hard-fought stubborn mile of his extraordinary world records; every bloody snarl at authority: everything would somehow find its way back to what had happened at Lamorbey in Kent.
Not until 1947 – two interminable years into the peace – were he and Victor collected and returned to a normal family life. Except by then it was anything but normal. When the brothers were finally 'rescued,' their mother was long dead, their father was remarried to a stranger and their new life was set to start again not in London but in the cold, unfamiliar embrace of the Pennines.
No matter how far or how hard John Tarrant ran in his life, he would never quite get away from its terrible start.
Eight years earlier
In later years, John Tarrant would usually cut a distant, remote figure, at his happiest when alone, with nothing to threaten him but the open road and a stopwatch. As a child, his world had been very different. It had been the crush and grime of the London which spills southwards from the Thames in a welter of bus routes and council blocks, with an alehouse seemingly on every corner and a decrepit snooker hall not far behind. It was then, and still is, a grainy, gritty unloved part of the city.
Ancient villages fused into an unfashionable urban melt. Walworth. Peckham. Brixton. Places, like Camberwell Green, where the strangled remnants of a rural yesteryear linger only in street names very much at odds with the concrete and the clamour. Here, ten minutes past the Elephant and Castle, at the point where the Peckham Road collides with Camberwell New Road, where the pound shops and pawnbrokers still turn a tidy profit, is Warner Road and the squat, prison-like block of flats opposite the bus depot which was to be John Tarrant's first family home.
He'd been born north of the river on 4 February 1932, at Queen Charlotte's Hospital, Shepherd's Bush, the first son of John and Edna Lilian Tarrant, a couple who'd married two years before in south Lambeth and whose life, to this point, had been distinguished only by the sort of anonymous poverty which would later characterise the desultory working years of their firstborn, now christened John Edward Tarrant, and happily kicking his strong legs in the family's airless top-floor flat.
The baby's father had been christened John, too, but to the world he was simply Jack, a name which perfectly suited the raffishly eccentric persona he'd cultivated, and which he would never quite let go. Even in his 70s, it was not unusual for Jack Tarrant to enter a bar wearing a full-length herringbone coat and a monocle, drop to his knees and sing a song before passing around his hat for beer money. His lifelong catchphrase – affected in an eye-rolling toff's accent – was 'I don't suppose you can lend me a dollar,' and, although in later years the dollar became 'a fiver,' it remained a slogan uttered as much in need as it was in jest.
Money was tight for the newly-weds. Jack had been working as a hotel porter when he'd married Edna Sorrell in 1930 on a warm Midsummer's Day in Lambeth, and now, two years later, he was still scraping the same living, supplementing a bellboy's wage with the tips he won around the lobbies and restaurants of hotels like the Regent Palace, tucked darkly behind Piccadilly. This was the young Jack Tarrant's manor; the world where he could duck and dive, smarm and smile, and lavish his roguish charm on wealthy guests struggling through rotating doors with their matching leather valises and hatboxes.
Everyone knew Jack Tarrant. Jack Tarrant was an operator, a charmer, a chancer, and even if he didn't have a bean in his pocket – even if the veneer was thin – he'd make sure people remembered him. A meticulously concocted look would take care of that. Silk scarves. Fedoras. Neat double-breasted suits and immaculately knotted ties. A constant rose in his lapel and a mat of dark hair slicked down with margarine and salt. Even the moustache was fastidiously precise, pared right down to the finest of lines along the width of his top lip (and in later life darkened with an eyebrow pencil).
But Jack was more than just a stereotypical wartime spiv. Unlike his son John – who would easily be browbeaten by men of rank – his father knew how to speak to and manipulate these people. He knew how to work them and work the scams. It was in his nature; it was in his blood. Jack's grandfather James had been a stagecoach driver. James's son Charles Tarrant had maintained the stables of Duntisbourne House – 70 acres of rolling Cotswolds seclusion – presiding over two grooms and ensuring that the horses were constantly ready for a spot of hunting or an excursion to the spa at Cheltenham.
Jack understood class but didn't want a country life. His father, Charles, might have been happy breeding horses for the gentry, but it wasn't for him. Jack had been born and raised around Cirencester, but before he was 20 he'd decamped to London to experience the thrilling rush of a city prising its way out of a depression. By 1930, he was living in Miles Street, Lambeth, spending his days, and much of the nights, trolleying suitcases, ever ready with a quip and a needy, dog-eyed pause before guests, luggage and gratuity disappeared forever behind the rattling cage gates of a hotel lift. By then, Jack had more than his own survival to worry about. Early that year, he'd met and proposed to a parlour-maid called Edna Lilian Sorrell. Less than 12 months later, she was pregnant for the first time.
Very few photographs of Edna survive, and those that do have a sorrowful air. In one – taken when she was just eighteen – she peers sadly off camera through watery eyes ringed with tiredness. Her stockings have wrinkled around the back of her ankles. Her lips are thin and pale and turned down at the corners. Wearing a drab suit and a hat pulled down over her dark eyebrows, she looks, for a teenager, to be desperately sad. Details of her early years, or of her courtship with Jack Tarrant, are as elusive as the photographs. Until his own death, almost 50 years later, Jack would always carry a small picture of Edna in his wallet, but no letters have survived, and she was to die long before her children were able, or sufficiently interested, to find out.
Born in Middlesbrough in 1908 – the daughter of a 'motor engineer' – she had, like countless teenage girls in Edwardian England, chosen a life in service, a choice which drew her south to London and eventually into the seductive orbit of the wisecracking valet-porter Jack Tarrant.
However they'd met, the couple now had a life together – and by February 1932 they had their first child, John Edward, a responsibility which stretched chronically limited resources. Paid badly for only eight hours, Jack was forced to stitch four extra, unpaid hours onto his daily shift, relying on his charm and chutzpah to tempt tips out of weary travellers thankful for his muscle. For Edna, these were long and lonely days. The fifth-floor rooms of their flat were small, and cold in the winter, and the building had been designed in 1915 by architects with little awareness of the needs of a young mother.
There was no lift, and the folding buggy was half a century away. On warm days, Edna would walk the pram to the main road and slalom between honking London buses before passing away an hour on Camberwell Green, once the centre of village life, now filmed permanently with the fine black soot of the city. As the traffic thumped by, she had a great deal on her mind. Climbing up and down the half-lit stairs of their block was proving more of an effort than it should have done for a young woman in her mid-20s. Even with the baby and the shopping, she surely shouldn't be as breathless as this. Perhaps it was only her hormones. Less than a year after the birth of her first child, Edna was pregnant again, and in May 1933 John was joined by a brother, Victor Arnold. They would very soon become inseparable, and nothing, until John's death in 1975, would break that bond.
Unexpectedly, the arrival of this second child was to ease the growing Tarrant family's problems rather than worsen them. Even the hard-pressed local council could see that a top-floor flat was unsuitable for raising two very young children, and a move was arranged to new accommodation in Tooting. It wasn't far away – half an hour by bus, south through Clapham and down the Balham High Road – and yet, in every respect, it was a joy-filled switch for Edna, who'd grown crushed and weary in Camberwell, and whose health was now causing significant concern. A new home might be a happy, restorative distraction. A proper house, too – at 241 Cowick Road, a fine pre-First World War redbrick terrace on a quiet, airy, neighbourly street, with a small garden at the back and an even smaller one at the front guarded by a gate and a thickly rambling privet.
Today the house and the street have changed very little, even if the neighbourliness – or some of it – has gone. Almost every door sports the same sticker: 'no uninvited callers.' The occasional car streaks past too fast spilling rap from open windows. And yet, for all this, there's still a pleasing calm about the place that Edna and her sons must have loved. A few hundred yards away on Upper Tooting Road, things are very different. Every square inch of the pavement seems measled with black dots of hardened gum. There's a shop called Dreamland boarding up its windows, permanently. Nearby, in another shopfront, Punjabi suits sparkle and shine across from Dado's Indian English Afro Grocery, promising pure basmati to the rain-dodging shoppers otherwise torn between the Polish deli, the halal food emporium and TK Maxx. If it was round here that Jack Tarrant once went looking for an anaemic prewar pint of flat London bitter, pulled amidst the Woodbines and mirrors of a street-corner pub, then he'd struggle today. The Upper Tooting Road has moved on, and Cowick Road's former council houses sell for £265,000 and more.
In 1938, for the young John Tarrant, the few months he spent in Tooting were beyond mere value. They were priceless. 'To this day I can remember the joy of my mum and dad,' he recalled – a thrill which was amplified when Edna discovered Tooting Bec Common. Turn left out of the front door, then left again, and there it was. Enormous. A revelation. A woody oasis of sycamore and oak, rowan and ash, criss-crossed by looping secret paths and switchbacking tracks hardened by the passage of kids' bicycles. On top of the freedom of a front and back garden, John and Victor had an entire park to explore – and a black and white terrier called Dixie to explore it with. In December 1938, the brothers had been given the dog as a Christmas gift, and if Jack wasn't portering and the sun shone, the entire family would make their way to the rustling green respite of the common.
Notwithstanding the sooty fogs which could still reduce London's buses to a crawl, the Tooting air would have done Edna good, but it was still not enough to put a brake on the accelerating decline in her health. By 1939, she had almost certainly been diagnosed with a complex cocktail of illnesses which included sugar diabetes and that curse of pre-war inner-city dwellers, tuberculosis. On its own, TB – or consumption as the Victorians preferred to label it – would have presented Edna's doctors with a significant challenge. Despite decades of research, it was still a disease which perplexed and mystified scientists. For its sufferers, however, there was no mystery. Edna's symptoms would have been horrifying. Coughing blood, night fevers and weight loss led to exhaustion and often death. In severe cases, the infection could even move from the patient's lungs into the lymph glands and spine, and around 100 million people were to die of it in the twentieth century alone.
By 1946 there would be a vaccine, but it had come too late for Edna. Before then, there was no agreed effective treatment. Worse still, it was a disease which continued to evoke a sort of superstition one would associate with the Dark Ages. Within living memory of Edna's infection, there were still people who believed it to be caused by excessive masturbation. What was indisputable was that when combined with diabetes, tuberculosis was extremely hard to treat. And what made matters even worse for Edna Tarrant and her family – and just about everyone else – was that Britain had just declared war on Germany.
Excerpted from The Ghost Runner by Bill Jones. Copyright © 2012 Bill Jones. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Posted April 30, 2013
This is an incredible story. The author first heard about John Tarrant in 1985 when he was doing a documentary about the Manchester running club (Tarrant was a member) and read his memoir. From that time forward, he would not stop thinking about Tarrant and became intrigued to know more about him.
Bill Jones has written a great book about an unknown man who ran for revenge and justice.