A lot of people style themselves writers, and rent apartments in the inner city and wear black turtlenecks in order to work themselves up into a creative mood. But take away their coffee shops and bookstores and then where is the writer in them? Take away their internet access, their satellite television and most cell phone coverage. Put them in a barely furnished house in the middle of miles and miles of farmland with no one to talk to at night. Now get them to produce something in the way of writing. It’s blasted hard, I tell you. But anyway, here it is, as always, and I hope you like it, as the wife said to her husband on serving him his 366th dinner since they’d been married.
The year I was born, an award-winning story was told of a couple of men across the pond. Here’s an ordinary Scottish fellow whose plan in life is do what his dad did, in the land where he was born. He does a lot of things and is quite good at a few of them. He’s got a real knack for running. He’s a modest fellow. All who ever knew him looked back on his friendship and counted it a privilege. The last we hear of him, we find that he is dead, having died in the land where he was born, and having lived his life much as he expected to.
The other fellow is also a young man making his way in life. He does a lot of things and is quite good at a few of them. In fact he’s pretty nearly the best in his field. Everything else is peripheral to him. He is determined to make it widely known, through his talents, that not only is he not less human because of his heredity, but he is a better man than any other in spite of it. All who knew him were struck by his obsession. The last we see of him, he has by his mastery achieved incredible fame and victory, and has gone home to marry a girl who is apparently quite beautiful by the standard of the time.
At some point, both attended a sort of party, and both, after some close calls and rough situations, won what you might call party favours. For the second fellow it was the climax and fulfilment of many years, a high-water mark in life that that he might never reach again; for the other, it was merely a fond memory.
That is all there is, essentially, to Chariots of Fire, which was released in 1981 and won the academy award for Best Motion Picture in that year. I doubt I will ever see a work of cinema that gives such a realistic picture of life. A lot of people like the story because it depicts a man standing by his principles and all that. There is a lot more to the story than that, though, and its larger meaning is lost on most people.
Both fellows have something like a happy ending. They have both given their best and achieved sweet victory. For one, however, it is a precipice from which you know he will soon come crashing down. He is in his late twenties and has just spent his whole life doing nothing more than validating his existence to the public. He is still stuck on himself; the only change is that he now has nothing more to aim for. Thankfully, we are spared the picture of his married life.
Who is this other fellow? He has goals, too. The opportunity presents itself to run in the Olympics, and he pursues it with determination, but is perfectly ready to toss it away when it presents a conflict with his greater goals. His speed in running is not a means of obsessing about himself; it was a means of uplifting the spirits of those around him, like most everything else in his life. He was able to be the best without sinking into a quagmire of foolish introspection.
Then the story ends, and we see all the old folks leaving the funeral service, walking out of the austere Anglican chapel and into the rain. At that point I feel that I am as encouraged by the one man’s humble death as I am depressed by the other man’s proud life. I wonder sometimes if my funeral will be the same way.
“Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing glove.”
— P.G. Wodehouse