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Beer & Brine: The making of Walter George by Rob Hadgraft

Release date: 01st September, 2006
Publisher: Desert Island Books

List Price: £18.99
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Beer and Brine
The Making of Walter George:
Athletics first superstar

By Rob Hadgraft
Desert Island Books

4sportsbooks.co.uk price: £20.98 incl p&p

Walter George is a name that doesn't exactly trip off the tip of the tongue when one thinks of great British athletes, yet it could be argued, with some justification, that he has the right to be considered the greatest athlete this country has ever produced. In total, George created 32 world records between 1880 and 1886 at a variety of middle and long distances, including the mile, a record that lasted for 37 years before the flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi, bettered it in 1923.

Athletics historian Rob Hadgraft has turned his attentions to George following his acclaimed 2004 biography of Alf Shrubb, who followed George as the hero of the track in the UK. But without the copious media coverage of Edwardian England to go on, Hadgraft faced a much harder task unearthing Walter George's compelling story.

Despite these difficulties, Hadgraft's book is one of the finest sporting biographies you will ever read. Not only is the text illuminated with stirring reportage of the record-breaking races in which George took part, but it also provides the reader with as good a picture of mid to late Victorian England and the growth of sport as any book has ever done. Gripping from start to finish, it is meticulously researched and vividly encapsulates what sporting biography is all about.

Walter Goodall George was born in 1858 in the small town of Calne in Wiltshire. He followed in the footsteps of his father Fred, a pharmacist, and was apprenticed in Worcester. The story of his early life in the idyllic Wiltshire countryside is beautifully told with plenty of social and political background, a feature which underpins the narrative throughout.

A talented all-round sportsman, he helped form Worcester Rugby Club in 1875, which became the focus of his burgeoning athletics career. Later, he moved to Moseley Harriers; it was while a member here that he set all of his world records.

By modern standards, George's career as the best athlete in the world was short: this was undoubtedly due to the volume of top class races in which he participated in all parts of the UK; he even managed a trip to Australia and two to the USA, where he took on Lon Myers, his only credible global rival. But it was also due to the fact that he liked a drink, the odd cigar, women and what is endearingly described as "a spree".

To those who think drug scandals and betting scams are a relatively modern sporting phenomenon, there is a real surprise in store here. There is plenty of evidence that George and his peers liked a bet and that race-fixing was commonplace and that drug-taking, for other than medicinal purposes, was rampant.

Not as though these excesses appeared to do him any harm: George lived to the ripe old age of 84. In his athletic retirement, he started several businesses, became a much sought after coach and a distinguished journalist. He even managed to be present at the age of 78 when Sydney Wooderson broke the world mile record in 1937, the first time an Englishman had beaten George's record. By the time of his death, he had been married to his wife Ada for more than 55 years.

This is a wonderful book, full of epic encounters, eccentric characters and unforgettable stories. It truly deserves a wider readership.




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