The Meaning Of Sport, by Simon Barnes

The great all-rounder breaks all the sporting rules but plays a blinder

Like many creatures he observes in his other life as a birdwatcher, Simon Barnes is a rare species: a sports correspondent who writes novels, a hack who packs haiku when covering the 2002 World Cup from Japan, and the Greek poet George Seferis when assigned the Athens Olympics.

A regular reader of Barnes's work would sense the literary depth of his reportage, but he has survived by judiciously underplaying these strengths. The Meaning of Sport is a collection of the despatches from the press box that he never sent. By turns, they are meditative and polemical, often gentle, sometimes caustic, self-consciously literary, occasionally overwrought. They break all the normal rules of newspaper sportswriting.

There is, therefore, something of a beleaguered tone. Barnes is an intellectual in a sporting and journalistic culture that despises them. His objections to the regularised brutality of boxing is taken as contemptible effeminacy by his peers. Yet he finds himself marooned in a literary culture that considers contempt for sport a mark of erudition.

Yet it is Barnes's distance from the mainstream of sports reporting and his rootedeness in wider debate that make him a compelling read. His respect for the feminine dimension of sport is refreshing, the account of Ellen MacArthur's global sail a eulogy to the unbreakable constitution and stamina women can summon. Barnes also demonstrates an eye and mind for the eroticism of sport. From his Suffolk base, he rails against the urban male monoculture of football in defence of rural and minority sports.

The fractured nature of the book unpicks its title. There is not one meaning of sport, but many: here are reflections of the relationship between sport and play, on sport as dramatised hunt, duel or war. But Barnes loves sport most for its narrative offerings, epic and tragic: its uncanny capacity to expose character and destiny.

I can do epic and tragedy, but I like my sport with a touch of Pynchon's incomprehensible paranoia and Vargas Llosa's bitter satire. Better still, I like it with a bit of history and politics, because they won't leave sport alone. Barnes's instinctive dismay about England's neurotic relationship with its football team can be told with the aid of literature, but only politics, economics and sociology will really nail it. Next time, I hope he packs some Hobsbawm with his haiku.

David Goldblatt's 'The Ball is Round' is published by Viking