The first time I spoke to Frank Keating, then at the height of his powers as the Guardian’s chief sports writer, was when, as a newly arrived sub-editor at the paper in the early Eighties, I was deputed to sub one of his articles.
Through no fault of Frank’s – the page designer was renowned for favouring flair over accuracy – his piece needed a major cut, so I phoned him with the bad news and diffidently asked if he wanted to choose which sections to lop. “Oh no, you’re the chap on the spot,” he replied. “Do what you like with my drivel, m’dear.”
Drivel it wasn’t, of course, but it was unlike any other sports writing before or since. Frank’s style was a heady mix of romanticism, humour and joyful wordplay, all framed by a confiding, conversational tone. His love of alliteration could at times be almost poetic, as when he wrote of “Norwich’s sword-sharp, Siberian sleet”, at times sheer fun, as when he described the eccentric England batsman Derek Randall’s antics at the crease as “frenzied fidgeting for the ferret in his flannels”.
Frank wrote for the Guardian for more than 40 years, as well as penning well over 1,000 magazine articles and 14 books, before his death aged 75 in January last year. Well before then, and partly due to ill-health, he had largely stopped travelling to live events, and was viewed condescendingly in certain quarters as somewhat of a yesterday’s man, keener to reminisce about the 1948 Australian Test side than the current series.
But reading this compilation of his work is to be reminded what a great reporter and perceptive interviewer he could also be, and just how much he loved his work. As one colleague put it: “He didn’t write too much about [sport’s] technique or language. He wrote about its soul.”
A lovely man, a lovely writer.
Published in hardback by Faber & Faber, £17.99