Roger Bannister and the Four Minute Mile

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I was sad this week to hear of the passing of Roger Bannister, the English athlete who famously broke the four minute mile in 1954. I grew up a little after that, in the shadow of World War II, the British Empire’s last gasps, the ascent of Everest and the four minute mile.

Bannister, boyish looking, amateur athlete, running around the track at Oxford, represented a particular Englishness for me, partly because my father was a runner and told me these stories too. I remembered this week that I’d written a poem that included Bannister a few years ago, so I thought I’d include it here, now.

 

Child of the Empire

I was born under
The Illusion of Progress,
raised on the outskirts
of a great empire, believing
things improve,
built things endure.

I was schooled in
The Great Tradition
near an airport
where the bright silver vehicles
of the future
descended from the blue.

I was coached in the exploits
of Roger Bannister and Baden Powell
and the self-determination of
Look and Learn
or the steady resolve of Churchill
in the Blitz.

All that certainty unravels slowly
and tangles as it does,
things change before you know them,
a stone, nestled beneath the tongue,
wont get you through all this.

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