Thursday, September 2, 2010

Snell & Halberg

Fifty years ago, I started teaching. During the school holidays I was home on the farm. I went out in the morning to the kitchen where Dick my step-father – always first up – was sitting with his roll-your-own cigarette and cup of strong tea at the table listening to the news. ‘Did Halberg win?’ I eagerly asked.

He nodded to the radio – ‘they’re passing to Rome in a minute.’ When the switch was made the announced burbled on about New Zealand having two men running that day. The first was Snell in the 800 metres. ‘Blow that’ I said, ‘I want to know how Halberg got on.’ Dick took a puff and kept a poker face. Snell won. A runner I’d taken no notice of. He’d come from nowhere to cross the finishing line first. I listened to ‘God Save the Queen’ being played with amazement and considerable impatience. How had Halberg performed?

He won the 5,000. He out-guiled his opponents. The anthem was played again. It was a double triumph. It was good to be a New Zealander that day.

Four years later I was teaching at Thames. A group of us went up to Auckland to watch Snell break the world mile record at Western Springs. On the car radio on the drive home we heard ‘This is London Calling’. The BBC News! Snell’s time was the first item. The only time in my life I’ve been at an event which was commented upon that world service.

Four years later I was living in Hamilton. Midnight! In bed I listened to Olympics from Munich. Our rowing eight had won. For the first time ‘God Defend New Zealand’ was played. My body didn’t stand to attention but my soul did. Crappy words but the tune is uniquely ours. It was at that moment I left the British Empire.

Though two yeas later when I was in London for the first time I felt a swell of imperial pride when I saw Big Ben and heard it strike. Nostalgia is not enough. The more I saw of Britain the more I realised I was a Kiwi. Snell and Halberg helped shape that sense.

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