BOOK REVIEW / With flying collars: 'The Dogs' - Laura Thompson: Chatto, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE plethora of sporting books in the wake of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch is such that we can hardly wait for My Life in Lacrosse by a double-barrelled Tatler diarist. Laura Thompson's book, subtitled 'A Personal History of Greyhound Racing', naturally comes with a pre-publication endorsement from Hornby himself. Happily, though, The Dogs is no exercise in slap-dash opportunism, but a stylish and emphatically vivid portrait of a sport that is too often misjudged. It may be destined to be dubbed Fever Bitch, but this book stands up on all four legs.

And there is no reason to shiver at that word 'personal', which is normally the cue for self-indulgent memoirs that are as exclusive as other people's holiday snaps. For Laura Thompson, already an accomplished sports journalist, is the daughter of a 'Dog Man' - her father has been a highly successful greyhound owner for many years, and he presented her with her own racing dog, London Lights, when she was nine. Two years later, the dog won its first race at Harringay, at the enriching odds of 4-1.

The childish wonder of these early moments - trips to assorted tracks and seething kennels - are recalled without affectation, and inject the book's narrative with a warmth and passion no outsider could have achieved. Yet the saccharine is avoided, with such set-pieces as an almost hypnotic evocation of the sights, sounds and smells of the once vast Hook Kennels in Hertfordshire being properly laced with 'clammy worms of minced meat . . . dog piss streaming in rivulets away from every tree'.

Thompson's 'inside view' is more than just an accident of birth, however. For although greyhound racing is the second largest spectator sport in the country (after football), large areas of it are effectively sealed off from public perception, even from many of those who participate as owners, trainers and gamblers. It is this inner life, the alchemic moments when these mysterious 'shadowless' animals are transformed into winning athletes, that she explores so convincingly - from their breeding in Ireland to their training, their sometimes brief competitive lives, and their all-too-frequently loveless retirements.

Along the way, the incidents and the memories trigger acute moments of observation about gambling ('buying the future'), sporting passion, and the gaps these fill in our lives. Like balancing the sacred and the profane, Thompson's reactions to her sport embrace both extremes of 'heart' (the dogs' unseen courage and will to win) and 'lariness' (the gold Roller, shell-suits, prawn cocktails, fistfuls of readies in bookies' paws), recognising that one without the other would leave a diminished spectacle.

That she leans more towards the 'heart' is completely understandable, given her empathy with dogs that were brought into her life as yapping pups. Occasionally, this purist tendency causes her to go in hard on such intrusions as the 'clueless evenings of corporate hospitality' which blotted race-going in the 1980s, when the sport was annexed by the New Pagans from the City. And I suspect she disapproves equally strongly of the 'night-outers' such as myself, who like a drink and a bite to eat to accompany their stupid bets and forays into spray-on manliness, which are all part of the giddy cocktail of greyhound racing.

Nevertheless, the skill and intensity with which Thompson weaves together the sport's development - from the country gentleman's brutal coursing, through 1930s urban spectacle, to a major earner in the modern leisure and betting industry - overcomes suspicions of puritanical rage. By the end, all you want to do is go racing.

(Photograph omitted)

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