When several of my teenage contemporaries, tearaways in their youth, turned into model citizens, ie boring as hell when they grew up, it seemed reasonable to theorise that we all possess a certain quotient of ‘madness’ to get out during our lifetime, if not sooner, then later.
I don’t know whether Mel Batty was a quiet youth, I rather suspect not. But he was certainly the life and soul of the party in his maturity, a word that is somehow at odds with his effervescent behaviour. As he was known to say with glee, “I’m the batty one”.
I last saw and chatted with him around nine months ago, at the reconstituted British Athletics Writers’ lunch, where he was as ebullient as ever.
That ebullience, that love of life, that effervescence was cut short ten days ago, when Mel had a fall, then went into a coma from which he never recovered; he died last night, Monday August 29, aged 71.
As more than one respondent has replied to a circular about the bad news, ‘he was certainly a one-off’.
For those who knew him, no explanations are necessary; but if you did not have that good fortune, let me share one tale which, I think characterises Mel.
When he was a sports shoe company representative 25 years ago, he was proud to boast to anyone who would listen that he had signed up Zola Budd, the only athlete in the world who ran barefoot.
But his seminal party piece was to take off his specs, put a white handkerchief over his head, replace the glasses, and splutter, ‘The invisible man’. Thanks to his infectious humour, it was still funny on the 50th occasion.
I first saw Mel in his running heyday, winning the national cross country on the first of two consecutive occasions, in Leicester in 1964. He was as lissom then as he would become stout in later years.
After winning again in 1965, at Parliament Hill in north London, a few miles from his Essex home, the judges reckoned he was pipped by Jean Fayolle of France in the International Cross, the predecessor of the world champs. Mel always claimed with some justification that it should have been a tie at worst; and quizzed on the subject years later, some of my older colleagues at the French sports daily, L’Equipe agreed. Mel also set a world track ten miles record, and won many of the top road races in the UK prior to the marathon era.
As coach, he was as proud of his star pupil Eamonn Martin emulating him with two national cross country titles as he was of his own victories. And when Martin won the Commonwealth 10,000 metres title in Auckland prior to setting a UK record at that distance in Oslo, then winning the London Marathon, it was again typical of Mel that, not having travelled to New Zealand, but having got news of his protégé’s Commonwealth victory in the early hours of the morning in the UK, he dashed out of the house, and woke up the whole street with his celebrations. He was still telling the story six months later.
The neighbours may sleep quieter now, but like for the rest of us, without Mel around, it won’t be anywhere near as much fun.
(thanks to Mark Shearman for the photos, the second one was taken during Mel’s 10 miles track world record in 1964)