How my cultured Englishman friend outran his demons

How my cultured Englishman friend outran his demons

I could never have imagined that our decision to move to the UK in 2002 would result in a profound event in the life of someone I hadn’t yet met, who was to become a great friend. An event that inspired him to write a book now on sale in the UK, US, Australia and South Africa.

Phil Hewitt speaks the Queen’s English arguably better than the Queen herself. He’s arty, cultured, refined, polite, considerate, pays rapt attention when listening to you, speaks English, French and German, is Oxford-educated (first-class honours in modern languages, doctorate in early 20th-century French theatre) and, did I mention, vegetarian. And, despite all these encumbrances, my friend.

Yet for all of his culture, there are two surprising things that beset his mind all day, every day: his obsession with running the world’s great marathons (34 at the book’s last count, now 37), and his obsession with the Rolling Stones. The world marathon notches on his belt include New York, London (six times), Paris (three times), Rome, Amsterdam, Marrakech, Tokyo and Berlin. He hasn’t done the Comrades but has talked about it. If he ever returns to South Africa … a question that has everything to do with where this story is leading.

We worked together for four years in Chichester in the early years of the century and became close friends. Meatarian that I am, I was long puzzled by his vegetarianism (he readily calls himself “a veggie”), wondering how he could ever get enough meat on his bones (sorry) for the stuff that gets taken out of a marathon runner. Turns out he honestly doesn’t give it much thought.

I am really poor about thinking about food except for the marathon cliché of stuffing loads of pasta in the 10 days before a marathon,” he told me this week. “I know there are lots of things nutrition wise I should be doing that I don’t do, but I have always tried to keep things as simple as possible … stay reasonably slim and make sure I do plenty of miles in training. Careful nutrition would doubtless make me a far better runner, but I shy away from anything that complicates the simplicity of shoving your running shoes on and diving out the door. I think I am probably lucky that as a vegetarian I naturally eat pretty healthily and am naturally skinny.”

Whatever his diet, it clearly works. He “went veggie” 25 years ago after his wife Fiona lost the taste for meat “and so suddenly it was no longer in the house, and that made me start thinking about what it is. And with thinking came complete conviction that I really, really don’t want to eat anything that could have looked at me and said moo or baa! I totally respect anyone who eats meat and would never try to dissuade them. It is just that I know categorically it is not for me.”

As for Phil the Stones-head, that’s no understatement. You’d never think so to look at his slim, unassuming self. But there cannot possibly be a greater fan in the world. Tantalisingly, Keith Richards actually lives near Chichester, at The Witterings, in a big old house he writes about in his wonderful autobiography, Life, in which “Keef” describes the moment he first saw the house he still owns today: “On a rare day off between tours I did manage to buy Redlands, the house I still own in West Sussex, near Chichester Harbour; the house where we were busted, which burned down twice, the house I still love. We just spoke to each other the minute we saw each other. A thatched house, quite small, surrounded by a moat. I drove up there by mistake. I had a brochure with a couple of houses marked and I’m poncing around in my Bentley, ‘Oh, I’m going to buy a house.’ I took a wrong turn and turned into Redlands. This guy walked out, very nice guy, and said yeah? And I said, oh sorry, we’ve come to the wrong turning. He said yes, you want to go Fishbourne way, and he said, are you looking for a house to buy?”

Turned out the house was for sale, and Keef bought it for 20 grand. That day. “I said, if I bring you down twenty grand, can we do the deal?” So Keef “zoomed up to London, just got to the bank in time, got the bread – twenty grand in a brown paper bag – and by evening I was back down at Redlands, in front of the fireplace, and we signed the deal”.

(Redlands is the scene of the infamous Mars Bar incident of 1967, about which our editor at the Chichester Observer, Keith Newbery, often used to chuckle under his breath. You might want to google that.)

In four years of living in Chichester, we never did encounter Keef in the four main streets that meet at the old Tudor Cross in the town centre, or at the Fountain, an old pub were Richards and Mick Jagger were sometimes seen over a pint, so locals said. But our photographer colleague Malcolm McCluskey – the other Stones-head on the staff – regaled us with the time he saw Richards in East Street just up the road from our offices. Malcolm, a portly chap with a ringing baritone, was quite beside himself, and plucked up the courage to approach his hero. “Mr Richards, I’m a great fan, could I …”

To which, Malcolm said, Keef replied in two gruff syllables: “Fuck orff.”

Phil took me to a Stones cover-band concert at a big hall in Brighton once, driving us there and back from Chichester where we both worked at the newspaper, me as deputy editor and Phil as arts editor. The friendship hadn’t happened instantly, though. He was a bit wary at first of this Southern African fellow who had pitched up, working (then) on the West Sussex Gazette, a countryman’s weekly broadsheet.

I did the layout for his arts pages, up to eight broadsheet pages at a time, and I really showed them off. Phil would arrive at my elbow, at my desk, with a brown envelope on which was scrawled the story details for that week. He was (is, he’s arts editor for a slew of the group’s titles now) always on the phone, interviewing this or that actor, director, singer, artist, or charging out of the office at lightning speed to interview somebody somewhere, then speeding back in to tap it out at his desk. One day in March 2003, I was well into designing his pages and had just completed the layout for his interview with British Sixties pop singer Adam Faith. Just before lunch, a panting, stricken Phil was at my elbow, but as polite as ever. “Tony old bean, I hope this doesn’t put you out too much but I’m afraid there’s a bit of a problem with the Adam Faith story.”

Oh, right? Reads all right to me.”

Well, it did, but … well, he’s dead.”

A most inconvenient time for a pop star to die. So the story got pulled.

In April 2006, soon before we were to return to South Africa, Phil interviewed US singer Gene Pitney, who promptly died, leading me to suggest that Phil should get all pop stars to sign an indemnity before agreeing to be interviewed. But most others he’s interviewed seem to have survived.

Which brings us forward to July 2015, by when we’d moved from Cape Town to Cradock, and an e-mail popped up out of the blue from Phil. We’d been in contact throughout the years, and spent a Christmas together in Littlehampton, not far from Chichester, in 2012. The English cricket team (that’s his third passion after the Stones and running) was visiting South Africa in early 2016 and he wanted to come out. So we arranged our own visit to Cape Town. We persuaded him to book a Gardens Centre apartment. He did so, and hired a car. Which I was to end up driving him around in, because…

Because, after a one-day international at Newlands on Sunday 14 February 2016, carrying his camera, Phil waited endlessly for the taxi he had called to take him back to the City Bowl. It never pitched. Fit, proud and headstrong man that he is, he decided to just walk. From Newlands. Via Zonnebloem, as District Six is called now. At night. He set off, “in my floppy cricket hat, my rather fetching long, colonial-style shorts and an expensive camera around my neck”, and was crossing an open part of Zonnebloem when he was attacked by a young man, who stabbed his calf and thigh, and then kicked him furiously, again and again, leaving his stomach and liver battered and his legs and hand requiring 18 stitches.

By dawn I had heard from his wife in Hampshire, asking if I could help. We hared to town and pressed the lift button in the lobby of the Gardens Centre apartments. The doors swung open and out stumbled Phil wearing a T-shirt and shorts covered in reddish-brown, dried blood. On sight of me, stepping out of the lift, he burst into tears and clung to me. It was so hard to see him like that. Such a proud man, such a decent man, reduced to sobbing helplessness by a stranger with a knife. We learnt later that a Good Samaritan had found him in Zonnebloem and taken him to hospital for emergency treatment and stitches.

We got him to our doctor, who treated Phil and advised him, passing on information to his British doctor. Phil insisted he was fine, or well enough to enjoy the holiday he’d paid for. For the next few days, using his hired car, I drove him all over, to Cape Point (where he insisted we walk up the long incline to the summit) to the Winelands, et al. Neither of us has much recollection of what either of us ate in those long, sorry days of trying to retrieve a holiday from a murderous attack. Normally I’d take a guest to the cool dining spots in the city and Winelands, but even I was in a daze. “I really don’t remember too much of what we ate,” Phil said this week. “I think I was just in much, much more of a daze than I realised. I was really trying to be good and cheerful and normal because I was really conscious it was a happy week for you with (my daughter) Rebba’s engagement.”

My photo of Phil on Chapman’s Peak Drive, four days after his attack.

Two nights before his attack, we’d had supper on the terrace of Societi Bistro on a hot summery evening, Phil relishing the house’s classic mushroom risotto. “A gorgeous, warm memory, a really happy evening … two days before I was stabbed,” Phil recalls. As a veggie, he says he gravitates to Italian food, loves cheese-stuffed tortellini and ravioli and pizzas from Pizza Express, the quality UK franchise – and double up the cheese, if you please. “The first meal I remember afterwards was that fab veggie breakfast, near Rebba’s … the first time I felt vaguely normal and that things would all settle down…”

Food does that, because dining together isn’t just eating. It’s minds connecting, friends caring, eyes conveying your deep affection and your desire for the other’s well-being.

My friend Helen Walne made him and us a lovely vegetarian dinner in her hot summer garden as the visit was coming to a close. And then, the drive to the airport, handing the car back, waving him off, his limp evident. Me wincing at each step he took.

Once home, it soon became clear that his injuries had done far more damage than thought. But he determined that nothing short of amputation would deter him from running again and, knowing his resilient nature well, I had no doubt he would.

The result of all this was a new book, Outrunning the Demons – Lives Transformed Through Running (Bloomsbury), in which he tells this story as well as those of 36 other runners who have outrun their own stories, the writing of which he is able to give great empathy. He talked to people caught up in the Boston Marathon bombing, others whose loved ones have been murdered, people who have suffered addiction, alcoholism, anxiety, depression, violent and sexual assault, or sheer bad luck – and even a nose-diving jet, as the blurb notes.

He writes in his first chapter of his climb back to feeling better, which will continue for the rest of his life: “I have set the Worcester marathon a very specific task, a massive task, and I know the event will be equal to it: the marathon is going to move me on from the pavement in Cape Town where I have been stuck now for 15 months, convinced I am just about to breathe my last.

Looking back, I was an idiot. And I do a lot of looking back. The past hasn’t become past yet, and that’s the trouble. It is an endlessly replaying present, and I am condemned to be its sole and reluctant viewer, a spectator at what seems, with every fresh viewing, ever more likely to be my own demise.

It took a year for me to realise that my attacker probably didn’t have the slightest intention of killing me. He was a professional. A long lashing cut to the calf and a deep puncturing stab to the thigh; he knew what he was doing, I wasn’t going to get up in a hurry, but then he made doubly sure. He followed up the stabbing with a mini frenzy of kicking to stomach and ribs, back and neck as I lay there in my what-the-hell confusion.”

My eyes well with tears while setting this down. He set out to turn himself from Phil who has been stabbed to Phil who has run 30 marathons (as he writes in the book). That’s my mate: clever, considerate, word-perfect Phil; Phil whose stubbornness is outweighed only by his kindness. Phil who, were he not as headstrong as he is, may never have survived his attack, or ever run again. Phil, who may not be aware of my own sense of guilt that I had been not been at Newlands that night in February 2016 to drive him home; and Phil who, if he’d never met this Southern African, may never have made that trip at all. DM

Author and book.

Phil Hewitt is Sussex Newspapers group arts editor, Festival of Chichester chairman and an unstoppable marathon runner. His 10 books include Keep On Running: The Highs and Lows of a Marathon Addict, published in 2012; Chichester Remembered, Chichester Then and Now, A Chichester Miscellany, A Portsmouth Miscellany and A Winchester Miscellany. Follow him on Twitter at @marathon_addict.

Tony Jackman is Chief Sub-editor and Food Editor of Daily Maverick. Read more essays about random Karoo journeys, life and food in Jackman’s foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau), a cookbook-cum-memoir illustrated by 60 recipes, which was nominated for the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (2018) in the category for best food writing. Book inquiries: [email protected]


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