It is sometimes overlooked that the penny post made fan mail possible. It is unlikely, for example, that Byron was greatly troubled by autograph hunters when he awoke to find himself famous on the appearance of Childe Harold, though women who fell in love with him may have written to request a lock of his hair.
Today not to receive such attention is a sign of not having arrived, or of becoming a back number. Yet many a lesser light shudders at the flap of the letter box, fearing the problems that come with the morning mail.
A German student cheerfully flung at me the following "asks"; he says there is some urgency, because he needs the answers for an examination.
I can decipher the first questions: "What is my great, wight and step great?" and "Was I grown on town or land in the youth age?" I am in difficulties with "What are in this disciplin your best display, special in sprint?" and I am in deep waters with "Have you all the time to train the middle part?"
But I am utterly defeated by his last question: "How is your fence time to the width of your arcade time?" I am unhappy to be the cause of this able and earnest student's failing his examination.
A PROBLEM OF ARITHMETIC
Here is a more difficult problem. "I am 12 years of age, I can run 80 yards in 11 seconds and 220 yards in 28 seconds. Last year I could only run 80 yards in 14 seconds. Can you tell me what speed I should be running 220 yards in three years' time?"
To this seeker I must confess that I failed arithmetic at school because I could not answer the problem of filling the leaky vase.
Autograph hunting adds most letters to the postman's burden; it seems to be accepted as a growing pain of modern childhood. The highly organized collector now sends typed requests with "Please sign the enclosed card along the dotted line." I can see my name being filed away in endless cabinets labeled "European ex-Athlete, 1950-60."
Sometimes the request is in a childish hand: "Please would you put your name six times on one piece of paper, because my brothers and sisters want one too."
This wholesale demand might not raise suspicion if it were not for the disquieting knowledge that in the autograph market six of mine are needed for one of Pirie's.
Some of the letters contained veiled threats: "I have written to various athletes, yet you can't imagine how many didn't have the courtesy to reply." Perhaps I can. Sometimes, when faced with a six-page letter, I wonder whether the writer imagines that I spend my days dictating briskly to a squad of secretaries. Film stars may have such facilities, but not athletes.
Some appeals are too touching to be refused. From an envelope inscribed with simple optimism, "Roger Bannister, Miler, England," a tattered yellow paper fell out on which was written: "Kind Sir, I hear you very kind sir. Hence I address you these sweet-able words. I have curly black hair brown eyes. If you send me your picture I will send you my picture and a monkey skin. Please I will be your friend for ever. I have not anything more to say, but only greeting you."
My thoughts leave the gray drizzle outside and drift to some distant island in the tropics, where the palms throw long purple shadows. In a mission hut a woolly head bends assiduously over a sheet of paper torn from an exercise book. A boy's mind wanders from his task. His limbs ache to be lithely running in the sunshine.
I am moved by this picture; but I want to know more about monkey skins. Do they smell? If I collected enough, would a full-length monkey-skin coat be a suitable reward for my wife's long labors replying to these letters—helping to hold the bonds of Commonwealth together?
Some letters bring immediate personal danger. I was nearly drowned a few weeks ago by attempting to answer a worried young letter-writer who appeared to be training for the mile by holding his breath under his bath water. He complained that he could not manage more than three minutes, and wondered whether he ought to give up athletics.
Will he be satisfied by the knowledge that I was blowing bubbles wildly at 1½ minutes, and at two minutes had swallowed half a pint? I hope he never discovers that the world record of six minutes 29.8 seconds was set up in 1912 by a French bath attendant who, as far as I know, never tested his lungs on a running track.
The lower fourth at a girls' school had another idea. They wanted me a) to run as fast as I could up as many stairs as I could; b) to time how long I took; c) to count the stairs and measure the treads.
If I did all this, and was still alive, they promised that their physics mistress would work out my horsepower.
So the daily battle is waged with letters from young and old. Parents request autographs for children too young to wield the pen; elderly ladies write, "An uncle of the same name last heard of in 1880 had remarkably similar facial characteristics and a long stride—are we related?"
I do not believe that writing fan letters, like writing for newspapers, is necessarily the first sign of madness.
To the proposers of marriage I might be tempted to send a lock of my fast-thinning hair, with a fine Byronic gesture. But for some reason my wife seems to delight in answering these letters.
The author, who gave up pursuit of track records to become a physician, writes a column for the London Sunday Times