Peter Hoffmann has plundered his diaries to write a book about Scottish athletics in the 1970s and one entry reads: “On a beautiful, crisp, golden autumn morning I ran up to Meadowbank.” Actually, quite a few entries go like this. The seasons may change and produce slush or fog or stair-rod rain but the ultimate destination drives him on.
You cannot tell Hoffmann that Meadowbank was ever a thumping, grim, grey brutalist blot on the cityscape. After the Commonwealth Games at the start of that decade, the good people of Edinburgh got to play in the stadium, even scruffs like him from the Oxgangs scheme on the southern fringes. Meadowbank almost certainly saved Hoffmann, who had a difficult childhood with a violent, alcoholic father.
The first photograph in the book is of his Junior Membership card – No.2491 – for the tartan track and the rest of the swish-for-the-era facilities. “A life-changing moment,” reads the caption. For Hoffmann the card was the equivalent of a rich banker’s laminated pass to the VIP area of the most exclusive nightclub. Funnily enough, he ran with a future master-of-the-universe back in the day.
This was Roger Jenkins, brother of David, who lit the flame in Hoffman to become a runner. He was in awe of the siblings, their public-school confidence and easy charm to say nothing of their athletic talent, but could count both as friends. He hasn’t heard from Roger for 40 years and will occasionally read about him in the business pages, such as the most recent story of how the younger Jenkins is due to stand trial in a fraud case arising out of the 2008 financial crash.
The book poignantly records Hoffmann being left in Roger’s slipstream as the 1970s neared their end. A diary entry from ’77 mentions a postcard from Roger: “[He’s] settled in well at the Sporting Club de Paris with their excellent facilities. I miss our training sessions together but I guess the world has moved on. On the way home [from Meadowbank] I grabbed a small 12p ice cream from Demarco’s at Tollcross – still as flavoursome.”
The following year the friends are reunited at an athletics meeting in London: “I haven’t seen Roger in ages so it was good to catch up – he’s enjoying life … beginning a banking career with Barclays and on his way to his first million!”
Today, Hoffmann, 60, lives in Strathpeffer, Ross-shire with his wife Alison and is still fit enough to play football with his sons Will and Tom every Monday. Starting as a sprinter, he was an Olympian in Montreal in 1976 and also ran at the ’78 Commonwealths, claiming gold, silver and bronze at British and Scottish championships. In one of the earliest entries in the book, Roger in a letter compares him with the emerging Sebastian Coe: “Have you decided to run 800m next year? Oh yeah Coe was supreme, wasn’t he? … You’re as good.” Hoffmann smiles when I read the extract back to him and shakes his head.
“I was pretty naive back then, lots of us were. My diet was Alf Tupper-esque. A friend did have a sixpack – Paul Forbes. Next to him I thought I was fat! I mean, I reckon I could have run very, very quickly. Within five months of moving up to 800m I was doing 1.46. Steve Ovett’s best at that point was 1.45 and a half. So maybe if I’d had one or two tweaks … but that’s everyone’s story, isn’t it?”
Hoffmann’s story, A Life in a Day in a Year, is a love letter to 1970s Edinburgh, to Meadowbank and to the friends he made in the athletics community which met under the breeze-block structure. “Meadowbank was everything to me,” he says. “As the oldest, I bore the brunt of my father’s terrible moods. He was very menacing; just one look would make me cry. I sometimes turned up at my grandparents black-and-blue. Dad could have been a captain on the Ben Line but his alcoholism put paid to that. At one point we thought he was at sea but he was really in Saughton Prison; Mum kept that secret from us. He’d got a job at a cinema but went off with the takings.” Father and son would bond later but, quite apart from the fact he enjoyed running and was good at it, you quickly understand why Hoffmann almost seemed to live at the stadium. “Meadowbank transformed my life,” he adds.
The book is vibrant social history and will chime with any small boy who read the Hornet comic before it was tragically merged with Hotspur and loved Noggin the Nog – or any slightly older boy who met a winsome girl from Mary Erskine School underneath the Binn’s clock at the West End of Princes Street then went to the flicks to see The Way We Were or to the Ping On, one of the capital’s first Chinese restaurants, for lemon chicken.
Hoffmann was 14 when David Jenkins won European Championship 400m gold in Helsinki. “The next day, inspired by the fact he came from Edinburgh and David Coleman’s exciting commentary, I sneaked into the army barracks at Dreghorn with 40 Oxgang toerags and we laid out oil drums to create our own athletics arena.”
David would go on to win Olympic silver and Commonwealth gold. “He was the greatest natural talent I ever saw bar none,” says Hoffmann. “Michael Johnson was a class act but he doesn’t compare to David. Think about it: at 17 on a grass track at Arboretum and essentially off rugby training he was running 46.5. Absolutely astonishing.”
Soon Hoffmann, under the watchful eye of coach Bill Walker, would be training with both Jenkins boys.
“Of course I was impressed by them. They were products of a driven household, Edinburgh Academy and Heriot-Watt Uni. I’d skived school and ended up with two O-grades.” To some extent, though, Hoffmann was hiding his light under a bushel. “I remember Roger being taken aback when I used the word ‘scenario’. He commented on it. Although my family life was difficult it was also rich: my mother was at uni in the 1950s, a rare thing, and our house was full of books. So I also surprised Roger when I referenced Krook from Bleak House. He probably thought: ‘Oh, there might be more to Peter. He’s useful!’
Hoffmann continued to live in his world and the brothers in theirs. “I was poor. My job [as a clerk with plumbers’ merchants] paid me £8.17 a week after tax and Paul and I had to subsist on plates of chips from the Meadowbank cafeteria which we shared. I took the bus everywhere while Roger had a car given him by his father and probably didn’t even have to pay his butcher’s bill! But I wasn’t envious of him. I was probably Roger’s closest friend outside of David because as brothers they were really close. I had good recovery for a runner so we trained well together and both of them were very encouraging to me. And I should say that Roger also motivated me to better myself educationally when I realised I was no less bright than him.”
There is, Hoffmann says, an element of Greek tragedy about what happened to the Jenkins boys next. In 1987 David was arrested for trafficking steroids in the United States and served ten months of a seven-year sentence. Roger, once described as Britain’s richest banker and for a while romantically involved with the supermodel Elle MacPherson, is due to stand trial in January 2019 with three former colleagues over the way Barclays raised billions of pounds from Qatar. They are the first senior bankers to face criminal charges arising from the financial crisis.
Hoffmann smiles as he recalls fantastic battles with the brothers on the track. One of them, in ’75, was round the perimeter of Celtic Park at half-time in an Old Firm match: “There was Roger, Alan Pascoe and myself in a field of six. We were told not to wear green or blue for risk of upsetting anyone and got changed in the Celtic dressing-room. I was surprised to see some of the players having a fag. The atmosphere was electric and I managed to win. My prize was an alarm clock and £25 expenses. Pascoe got 500 quid.” Then in ’78 at the Scottish Championships back at Meadowbank, Hoffmann and both brothers fought for the 400m title. All three had won it twice before and this felt like a decider. “I was desperate to win because David had loomed large in our household for years. I just managed to catch Roger on the line and Mum said she’d never seen Grandpa Willie so happy. He’d become my surrogate dad and sadly died a few months later.” That night Hoffmann tried to relax in front of the TV watching football. Unfortunately the game was Scotland vs Peru in the World Cup.
Hoffmann was selected ahead of Roger for Montreal although didn’t manage to force his way past the ageing Pascoe into the 4x400m relay team. “Pascoe was supposed to hand over to David but something went wrong. David’s still waiting on that baton today.” He was sorry for Roger not making the Games, all the more so when he discovered how his friend dealt with the disappointment. “He went home and cried himself to sleep listening to a favourite album, Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night.”
In the Commy Games in Edmonton Hoffmann was strongly fancied to win 400m gold for Scotland but crashed out. “I was a shell of myself,” he says. “I’d been unwell but there was also a confidence issue, as there had been throughout my career.” When it wound down he worked in sports administration, moving to the Highlands, a long way from the smell of Meadowbank’s chips but never quite getting it out of his nostrils. He repeats: the place was the making of him.
And the Jenkins boys? “I’ve hooked up again with David via Facebook, which has been great, and you’ll never guess: completely out of the blue a message from Roger’s PA just arrived today … ”