Band played on as Scots Olympic hero lay dying in a Prisoner of War camp.

Beautiful hymn that soothed Liddell's pain

 

By GRAHAM TIBBETTS

Evening News

Thursday, January 14, 1999

 

 

As he lay dying in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp; Olympic legend Eric Liddell heard the strains of a brass band floating through the stale air of his room.

A devout Christian, he asked the makeshift musicians playing outside his window to strike up one of his favourite hymns in a bid to ease his suffering.

And so the evocative music of Be Still, My Soul drifted through to Liddell on his sick bed, the words summing up the strength he drew from his faith in his darkest hour.

He died just days later in the internment camp in China, but it is only now, 54 years on, that the poignant request from one of Scotland's greatest-ever athletes has emerged.

A convention is being held to honour the legacy of Liddell, who won the 1924 Olympic gold medal in the 400 metres.

He achieved just as much fame for refusing to race in the 100m because the heats were on a Sunday and he later became a missionary in China, where he ended his days.

One of the speakers at the special Refining Gold convention, to be held in the Eric Liddell Centre in Edinburgh in July on the 75th anniversary of his Olympic triumph, will be a man who shared the hardships of prison camp life.

The Rev Dr Norman Cliff, 73, spent two years with Eric in China's Weihsien camp - run by the invading Japanese - from 1943.

Eric ended up in the camp after turning from running to missionary work in China.

Dr Cliff, who lives in Essex, said: "Eric Liddell took a lot of interest in the youth of the camp. There were 1800 people in it and quite a lot were schoolchildren."

Edinburgh University -educated Eric taught the youngsters science.

"He also organised races and baseball. Some of the younger people were getting into trouble because of the boredom.

"He would also play chess with the younger people and also organised country dancing for them," said Dr Cliff.

"Food and clothing were short. One of the games he organised was hockey.

"There were no replacements sticks - only what we arrived at camp with.

"He would tear up his sheets to mend hockey sticks. We only discovered that after he had died." The end came for Eric early in 1945 when, starving and weak, he developed a brain tumour.

Dr Cliff, who had worked with Eric in the Sunday school, recalled: "In February 1945 Eric was in hospital. We went to the hospital grounds and played hymns.

"A note came out from a nurse saying Eric would like us to play Be Still, My Soul to the tune Finlandia. We played and he died the week following. It was one of his favourite hymns. It was very moving."

But others invited to the convention in July will have happier memories.

Sir Arthur Marshall was a 400m runner with Eric and remembered a trip to Pennsylvania just before the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

Now 95, Sir Arthur said: "We travelled back in a small and slow ship called The Republic - a ten-day crossing.

"Eric entered in the fun and games on the boat, including the fancy dress dance. He dressed up as a Red Indian."

He remembered that they hit it off with two American girls on board the ship, adding: "Eric and I became good friends and saw much of two sisters, Freddie and Edith, who were travelling to 'do Europe'

"They said they were going to Paris for the Olympic Games and we said, if we were there at the same time, we hoped we could meet."

Eric gained fame for winning the 400m final after refusing to run the heats on a Sunday.

Recalling the final of the race, Sir Arthur added: "This was probably the greatest achievement of the Eighth Olympiad.

"The occasion was enlivened by support from the pipes and drums of the Cameron Highlanders.

"After Eric had won the gold medal, he and I made contact with Freddie add Edith and took them to a tango tea in the Champs Elysees."

Eric's eldest daughter Patricia Russell, 63, is looking forward to the convention.

She said from her home in Canada: "I am delighted that this event is being organised and that it will glorify God and his work in the same way that my father strove to honour God in his daily living.

"Although dad and his colleagues would never have been happy to be lauded for their own achievements, we are pleased that dad's Christian life is still valued and of relevance at the end of the 20th century."

One of Eric's nieces helps to run the partially built community centre, recently boosted by a 490,000 Lottery grant.

Dr Peggy Judge, 72, said: "Eric was a family man. He had very definite Christian principles by which he lived his life.

"I think Eric would have been amazed that this is being done in his name."

The centre will not be completed in time for the convention, but Rob Rendall, chief executive of the centre, hoped it would be finished this year.

Funding of about 1 Million has been secured after a mystery benefactor gave just over 100,000 to the cause.

Mr Rendall said: "Eric Liddell sets a superb example.

"There is a lot of interest in his moral and ethical standards and he is widely studied in the US as part of the school curriculum.

"They think of him as an all-American hero, but he is a Scot."

 

Accepting God's will, at whatever cost

THE Reverend Charles Robertson, minister at Canongate Kirk, is secretary of the Church Hymnary Revision Committee.

He said of Eric's favourite hymn: "The hymn is an acceptance of the will of God, whatever the cost. It looks forward positively to glory and reward."

The hymn is known by its first line and also its tune Finlandia, composed by the Finn Jean Sibelius. The first verse, translated in the 19th century, reads: "Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side;

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;

Leave to thy God to order and provide;

In every change He faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend;

Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end."

The last verse says:

"Be still my soul: the hour is hastening on;

When we shall be forever with the Lord;

When disappointment, grief and fear are gone;

Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.

Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past;

All safe and blessed we shall meet at last."