The Talented Mr Chandler




The boy who sat in the corner of my class at Farnham Grammar School was like a caged animal. Constrained and frustrated, he could only watch hopelessly while the other boys aggravated him with their boisterous behaviour. Pat Chandler had a weak heart. He was excused games and banned from the gym.

His sloping figure was never seen to hurry or exert itself. His only consolation was a violin, which he seemed to carry everywhere. His devotion to this instrument did not endear him to his fellow pupils; when Pat Chandler played his violin, rooms emptied, dogs howled and birds abandoned trees. But he could play any tune you named without reference to the music – pausing only to recommend Gustav Holst’s The Planets to anyone who would listen. While other boys achieved heroic status on the football and cricket pitches, or kept their amusing assignations with Bill Wickens in the gym, music was all that Pat had.

But then – after four years of introspective hibernation – the miracles began. In his fifth year at the school a series of hospital examinations and tests produced the surprising news that he no longer had a weak heart. He was normal. His heart was fine.

He arrived at school next day with an uncharacteristic grin: horizons were about to open up for him, and he was going to make sure that they did. Specifically, after a lifetime of watching miserably as other boys enjoyed the rewards of sport, he could now take part himself. He was desperate to do so, but at 16 it was a little late to develop the necessary skills at football, or master the finer points of cricket. Pat, nudged by student optimism, made a brave decision. There was one sport he could take up tomorrow without any experience at all - running.

Some of us laughed at this. He didn’t look like a runner. He didn’t even look like a runner when he ran. But run he soon did. He ran round the sports field on his own, liberated unexpectedly from the static life of an invalid. These lonely trials convinced him that he was a distance man; the sprint wasn’t his forte. When school sports arrived, he entered, to widespread amusement, for the mile.

As The Farnhamian of June 1999 reveals on page 24, the winner of the mile in 1951 was P.R.Chandler.

It is impossible to describe at this distance the shock that his victory caused. The boys then at school couldn’t have been more surprised if the gymnasium had been turned into a strip club. But before people had recovered from this bombshell, an even bigger miracle occurred.

As school champion, Pat Chandler was sent to the Surrey schools finals at Motspur Park – and he won that, too. The pleasure produced by having a Surrey champion in the class was greatly enhanced by the abrupt disappearance of the violin from the Chandler accoutrements.

Pat ignored the acclaim that fell on his head and settled down to the unwelcome challenge of O-Levels. But he had one more target in his sights: the school cross-country. This three-and –a-half mile ordeal was the preserve of Mick Doyle who had won the previous year with laughable ease and was so comprehensive a sportsman that he won his weight at boxing during a respite from football and cricket.

One day after school we timed Pat as he ran round the course. It took him 20 minutes and 25 seconds. The time depressed him. “I thought I had done it much faster than that,” he said, “but with five weeks’ training I should win.” His confidence seemed absurd – but the fact was that he had never lost a race!

When the big day arrived on November 1, I was corner boy at the bottom of Trebor Avenue. All eyes were focussed on the top to see who would appear first. And suddenly Chandler was there, coming round the bend in a worse condition than I had ever seen him. As he struggled red-faced down Trebor Avenue, Mick Doyle appeared at the top. He looked much fresher but was a clear 60 yards behind: there was no chance of Pat Chandler being caught. He ran in to tremendous cheers, followed, in order, by Doyle, Tull, Snellock, Coveney, Bowtell, Dow, France, Porter and Gooch.

“It was the bloodiest piece of running I have ever done,” he informed his growing fan club. “ But I had the right tactics.” These tactics, apparently, were not overly sophisticated and seemed to involve no more than running like a gazelle from the start in the hope, dramatically realised, of shaking off the rest.

There was one more surprise in store: Pat Chandler’s time was 18 minutes 58 seconds, which beat the school record by 18 seconds.

I have written many newspaper headlines in my life, but Boy With Weak Heart Smashes Cross-Country Record would have been welcome at any time – although, of course, when I was on The Sun a different flavour would have been required. Fiddler With Dicky Ticker In Stunner Runner Shock perhaps.

Thirty-five years later, on a snowy evening in March 1986, Pat Chandler reappeared at the Hen and Chicken at Froyle to which four men who were in Mike Foster’s very first class had invited their old teacher for dinner.

It emerged over the wine that Pat, who lived in Canterbury, had spent his entire life as a nurse in the National Health Service and had become a tutor. He had married twice, the second time to a Chinese girl with whom he had two sons and a daughter. His heart had caused him problems again, and he endured a heart bypass operation which, he reported, had greatly improved his health.

However, when I had finished this article I tried to get in touch with him, to find out what he had to say about that amazing summer. Sadly, his son Paul, aged 23 told me that Pat had died in 1998 at the age of 64. He had died after a second heart bypass operation.

Photograph, taken around 1957, shows Pat Chandler (right) with Vic Wyatt (who won the cross-country two years before Chandler’s famous victory).

This article was first published in The Farnhamian 2002 edition


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