Game, set and book contract
Harry Pearson waves a pennant for a team of sporting authors
Saturday 29 June 1996
We can learn many things from sport, but one of its most enduring lessons is that the passage of time has a peculiar effect on our judgment. As we get older, just as Radio One starts to sound like a discordant racket and we switch it off with a sigh of "Ou sont les Ramones d'antan?'', so sportsmen and women begin to appear less skillful, charismatic, heroic. Sport, like pop music, eventually turns us into our parents, a change that should be valiantly resisted. Not everyone shares this view. There is a tendency amongst some sportwriters towards a kind of martial nostalgia in which a star of the pastis seized as a weapon and used to club the present until it begs for mercy.
Such combative retrospection has thankfully been excluded by editors Nick Coleman and Nick Hornby from The Picador Book of Sports Writing. The nostalgia to be found here is of a more amused and amusing sort, whether it be Giles Smith's account of his postal love affair with Chelsea FC or Donna Tartt's memoir of her days as an adolescent cheerleader in Mississippi. Even the piece on George Best, a footballer who can provoke a fit of memorial contemporary-trashing in even the most stoutly modern fan, passes without so much as a swipe at Gazza. This is because the task is entrusted to the best of all British sports writers, Hugh McIlvanney. In their introduction, Coleman and Hornby voice the suspicion that a certain class snobbery applies to sports-writing in Britain. This is certainly true for, had McIlvanney chosen to apply his insightful and fiercely mellifluous prose to the description of some "higher" subject, he would undoubtedly have had a three-part South Bank Show devoted to him by now.
The emphasis in this anthology is very much towards the more recent past. There is nothing from before the First World War, and while this may lead traditionalists to hurl the book aside with a cry of "What, no Hazlitt?'' it gives Coleman and Hornby's selection a freshness missing from many similar works. The use of material by American writers less well known on this side of the Atlantic also contributes to the sparkle, and while the queasier among us are unlikely to thank the editors for bringing Paul Solotaroff's grotesque piece on the chemically-fuelled career of bodybuilder Steve Michalik ("My testicles had shrunk to the size of cocktail peanuts. It was only a question of which organ would explode on me first") to our attention, the extract from Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes - A Fictional Memoir is more welcome. Exley's account of a visit to the Polo Grounds is sour, funny and suffused with a barely controlled and irrational anger. This, you suspect, is what Holden Caulfield would have sounded like when he grew up.
One of the most amusing pieces in the book is New Yorker Al Liebling's account of a visit to the Epsom Derby at which he eats "a red-hot bag of cold fish and chips, a mystery of British cuisine comparable, though not in many ways, to a baked Alaska''.
Liebling's pawky view of the event stands in stark contrast to that of Laura Thompson, who in Quest for Greatness writes about the flat racing season with the zeal of the newly converted. This enthusiasm results in some fine and evocative descriptions of great races. At other times her evangelism gets the better of her and the book is peppered with the kind of assertions that lead lonely men to write "Prove!'' in green ink on the margins of library books.
Greatness, according to Laura Thompson, is what the sport of flat racing is all about. It is doubtful if David Ashforth, Sporting Life columnist and author of Hitting The Turf, would agree. As far as Ashforth is concerned, horses exist so that he can lose money gambling on them. Nor does he share Thompson's mystical view of the beautiful beasts. "We marvel at how majestic they look and wonder what they are thinking. They aren't thinking anything.'' Hitting The Turf is a very funny book. Its appearance at the same time as Quest for Greatness clearly demonstrates the breadth of opinion that a sport can provoke in those who love it most.
Albert Camus famously observed: "All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football''. Those who view this as a rare lapse of judgment on the part of the former goalkeeper will be confirmed in that opinion by the appearance of False Messiah, Mihir Bose's meticulously researched and compelling account of ex-England boss Terry Venables's business activities. Using court affidavits, interviews, official reports and boardroom minutes, Bose creates a picture of a world so riddled with factionalism, venality, snobbery and deceit it makes Volpone seem like The Little House on the Prairie. In the battle for control of Tottenham Hotspur, waged between Venables and Alan Sugar, which forms the core of the book, Bose clearly sides with the man from Amstrad. My own feeling by the end was similar to that of the Yorkshire miner who, asked by a journalist for whom he would be voting in the next election, replied: "Labour,'' then added: "Mind you, I wouldn't trust any of the buggers with two bob of my own money.''
A pair of more old fashioned sports books are Kenneth Wolstenholme's They Think It's All Over and Sir Garfield Sobers's The Changing Face of Cricket. Wolstenholme's commentary on the 1966 World Cup final is, as Ian Wooldridge points out in his introduction, re-broadcast more often than Churchill's wartime speeches and this is his personal memoir of the competition. Wolstenholme is clearly fair-minded, kind and decent - but while these qualities make for an admirable man, they lead to a rather colourless book.
Sir Gary Sobers, meanwhile, takes a look at the changes that have overtaken cricket since he retired in 1974 and concludes that they have not been for the best. For the rest of society the passing of time may be the greater healer; in the world of sport, its effect is more like an irritating rash.
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