Unwelcome memories of running mile after mile across the Berkshire countryside returned this week. Ahead of me are the Eliot twins, skinny and tireless in the manner of true marathon types, and one or two runners from the opposing school's cross-country team. Now and then, a few onlookers, volunteered into service by the school, cheer us on. The finish seems further and further away. Way out in front, covering the ground with that absurdly long stride of his and on his way to yet another victory, is James Hunt, the future world-champion racing driver.
In this week's documentary about Hunt, his years at Wellington were hardly mentioned – disappointing for those of us who were his exact contemporaries, but hardly surprising. Five teenage years spent at a run-of-the-mill public school are rarely of interest to the outside world, for whom the odd, secret world of boarders makes little sense. To those who experience it, those days represent a time of frustration and boredom, a period of treading water before one emerges, either bewildered and unworldly, like me, or like a bullet out of a gun, like Hunt.
We were in the same year, attended the same classes and, most significantly for a sporting school, we ran in the same teams, but we were never friends. Wellington was divided into houses – dormitories, as they were called – and life's everyday dramas, friendships and enmities rarely extended beyond one's own little community. Hunt was famously good at running and squash – never team games, as the documentary pointed out – but, in the manner of many sportsmen, he was not great company. He was a straightforward, regular, rather dull bloke – a type in which Wellington specialised. Even the fierce competitiveness that was later such a part of his success was hardly evident at that stage. He won things; that was all.
The tone of the programme was strangely cool towards its subject. The lineaments of James Hunt's life would seem to lend itself to traditional contemporary myth-making: his background in a family that had nothing to do with cars or racing, his meteoric early progress as a driver, his part in the famous, eccentric Hesketh team that took on the giants of Formula One with some success, his courage on the track (he won his first grand prix with the broken shard of a gearstick cutting into his hand every time he changed), his ferocious and ruthless racing style, the epic battles with Nicky Lauda that finally earned him the world championship.
Inevitably, the documentary dwelt on the celebrity lifestyle at which James Hunt also excelled. He drank, we were told. He took drugs. He was first off the grip when it came to a party. Above all, he was a famous, Herculean shagger of the models, air hostesses and shapely hangers-on who gather at racetracks.
We like our heroes to have heroic, king-sized failings, and here too Hunt obliged. He over-indulged himself. He let others down. He blew his money, went into mid-life decline, died before his time. For those of us on the sidelines, up in the grandstand, the combination of public success and private failure affords the quiet, comfy satisfaction enjoyed by readers of Victorian novels when the villain meets a humiliating and miserable end.
For those who talked about Hunt on TV this week, it was as if there were something unsatisfactory about him as a celebrity. Murray Walker chippily and ungenerously expressed his disapproval of the booze, the drugs and the sex, describing the man with whom he had once worked as an arrogant Hooray Henry. Team-mates and managers recalled his determination, his victories and his rampant party-going, but without any particular affection.
A nightclub bouncer recalled at some length the night when Hunt, towards the end of his life, attempted to enter a club in jeans, after – a rather sad touch – his much-loved budgerigars had won a couple of prizes. Hunt, we had been told in tones of severe disapproval, was as near as one could get to being sex addict, yet not one of his conquests, much less any of the women who spent time with him, appeared in the film. Perhaps the possibility that he had charm as well as ambition did not conform to the required image.
There was another sense in which James Hunt was not a conventional public figure. Unlike other great sportsmen whose career is in free-fall – George Best is the most obvious recent example – he did not cry or apologise in the manner we have come to expect. Even in his budgerigar-breeding years of decline, he showed little inclination to go into a clinic or share his pain with a high-profile shrink, in the way that is now fashionable. Even when his life was in tatters, he avoided playing the role of the celebrity victim.
That Brands Hatch world of bimbos, loud cars, champagne and moneyed upper-class twits is one I find peculiarly unappealing, but there is something unsettling about this story. From when Hunt left school to his death from a heart attack in his forties, his rise and fall exemplified the kind of life our parents had warned us about – selfish, wanting too much too soon, as if youth lasts forever.
The rest of us played the long game. We got our qualifications, sowed a few wild oats – more or less – before settling down. We have lived our lives on the assumption that, if we keep ourselves nice today, then tomorrow will not be too unkind to us. It is the message we pass on to our children: caution, balance, pleasure taken politely, in sips.
Now we sit before our television sets, plumply confident that we got it right, chugging along with the pack after the fast starter has burnt out half way through the race. The worry, just a quiet middle-aged twinge, is that the hungry, uncompromising lives of people like James Hunt may contain another, less reassuring lesson.Reuse content