Creaking bones and clashing egos

THE WRESTLING by Simon Garfield Faber pounds 9.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The sad decline of British wrestling is a story with few happy endings but many eloquent epitaphs. "The only thing that's straight in life is death," observes much-hated Jackie "Mr TV" Pallo, author of the notorious ring-fixers' expose You Grunt, I'll Groan, "everything else has got an angle." "We were Rock Hudsons," remembers the not quite so widely renowned grapple-veteran Mal Sanders, "now we get changed in broom cupboards." Confronted with quotes of such rare quality, it is small wonder that Simon Garfield decided to write his whole book in dialogue form.

The Wrestling begins with a list of those whose voices feature in it: names (Giant Haystacks, Johnny Kwango, Brian "Goldbelt" Maxine) which will stir many a half-buried memory of 1970s Saturday TV afternoons. Technical wrestling classifications - "a blue eye" (good guy), "a heel" (bad guy) - mingle with the identities of such celebrated lovers of the game as Peter Blake ("artist") and Roland Barthes ("semiologist"), while the author modestly marks himself down as "a narrator". Each chapter then boasts a Frasier-esque sub-heading of the order of " `So that was the ears business,' said Mick McManus."

All of which looks rather ominous. It is hard to shake the suspicion that Garfield (whose last book, The End of Innocence: Britain in the time of Aids was an altogether weightier affair) is planning to slum it for laughs in a comical underworld of swollen abdomens and malodorous hosiery. This would surprise nobody - in the pithy words of Klondyke Kate, "Everyone who does anything about wrestling takes the piss" - but it'd still be a great shame, because those who ruined their backs and destroyed their ankles to bring joy to the nation deserve better.

Happily, better is exactly what The Wrestling gives them. From the creaking bones and clashing egos of a 1995 wrestlers' reunion, back to the pioneering exploits of Georges Hackenschmidt, the Russian Lion, Garfield traces a fascinating history of pleasure and pain - of bone-shaking toil and breath- taking promotional chicanery. The fact that many of his key living witnesses are (sometimes even by their own admission) congenital liars only makes the whole thing even more entertaining.

An entry in Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman's diary for 1968 recounts a meeting with an unusually jovial Her Majesty The Queen, who is described as "writhing" in delight at the ringmasters' exploits. And yet for Greg Dyke, the ITV executive who pulled the plug on televised British wrestling two decades later, the grapplers' fanbase "personified the old English working class sitting round the telly staring blankly". What happened in the intervening 20 years was that wrestling lost the vital balance between showmanship and technique: once the British ring lived by showbiz rather than sporting logic, its demise was virtually assured.

The impecunious death-throes of the contemporary wrestling circuit are movingly laid bare here, while the reader is happily inducted into the lost and closed brother- and sisterhood of "the groin" and "the claret" without having to undergo any of the physical or mental agony of actual initiation. It's the links between wrestling and the world around it that are most fascinating. From the plumber who became obsessed with revealing the identity of masked Kendo Nagasaki, to the possibility that wrestling commentator Kent Walton might be Michael Grade's stepdad, to the fact that Shirley Crabtree (aka Big Daddy) got his given name from his grandmother's love for a Bronte heroine, Garfield happens upon a wealth of poignant linkages.

The most elusive character is legendary pig-farming hardman Les Kellett, who finally turns down the author's repeated requests for an interview with a heart-breaking "I hate myself at refusing you"; next to him, however, it is the narrator who turns out to be one of the more elusive presences in The Wrestling. "The first thing you noticed," Garfield says of a crucial meeting with Mick McManus, "was his ears." The use of "you" when what is really meant is "I" is usually an irritating form of journalistic false modesty, but in this case it can easily be forgiven. Simon Garfield's decision not to set his cap at the post-Hornby pot of gold by over-identifying self with subject is much to be commended, and his modesty in the face of his awe-inspiring source material seems properly genuine.