Red letter day for new bestsellers

Fallen heroes, fields of dreams and lots of laughs...sporting scribes are reaching a wider audience than ever
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The Independent Online
AS THE award for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, the climate in which it has bloomed shows no sign of deteriorating. It is symptomatic of the times that Sportspages Bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, where the pounds 10,000 award winner will be announced today, has recently extended its shelving capacity by almost half. "We knew we could fill the space," said Scott Eldred, one of the shop's sales staff.

Sportspages has experienced a sequence of year-on-year sales increases that reflect a huge appetite within the buying public.

"It's a growing phenomenon," said Roddy Bloomfield, a consultant editor at Hodder and Stoughton who has specialised in sports publishing for 25 years. "It does help that there is much more space given over to sport in national papers than there ever has been. People see more written about sporting figures, and have much more knowledge of them.

"There is also far more coverage on TV and there is a huge market now for sports videos. Sometimes that can work against a publication. If you have done a one-off book of a sporting tour, for instance, it's not helpful if people can go and buy a video of the action.

"But if you have done a biography or autobiography there is so much more there. A video, or a TV documentary, complements that, rather than working against it."

Bloomfield, who has helped to publish more than 1,000 sporting books in his time, believes this is a time of unprecedented commercial opportunity within the genre.

"For the publishers, there are many more opportunities to promote these books than there were," he said. "You can go to Sky, Channel 4, Carlton, BBC, and then maybe have an appearance on the Gay Byrne show in Ireland - well, 25 years ago none of that would be possible." Bloomfield sounds a cautionary note, however, pointing out that many sporting books still do not sell in huge quantities. What is clearly leading the publishing houses onwards, however, is the possibility of hitting the jackpot.

"Sports books can now sell in blockbuster numbers," says Nicholas Clee, deputy editor of The Bookseller.

Of all the recent sporting offerings, none has done better than that of the former Test umpire Dickie Bird. Since being published by Hodder and Stoughton in September 1997, his autobiography has surpassed half a million sales in both hardback and paperback.

"It's been a completely incredible phenomenon," said Karen Geary, Hodder's publicity director. "We knew it would do well, but I don't think anyone thought it would do this well." The reason, no doubt, is primarily to do with the personality of the subject - Geary describes him as a "national treasure".

But it also reflects the growing interest in sporting biographies and autobiographies.

Books such as Bird's, and precursors such as the Ian Botham autobiography published by Collins Willow, have spent many weeks in the non-fiction bestseller lists. Indeed, more than a year after publication, the Bird book is still there.

According to figures provided by Whitaker BookTrack, in the week ending 14 November, High Street bookshops excluding WH Smith sold 2,394 copies of Bird's book, placing it seventh among non-fiction best-sellers behind the chart-topper, Delia's How To Cook, Book One (5,455 copies).

Addicted, the autobiography of the Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams written with Ian Ridley - one of six on this year's William Hill shortlist - was six places below Bird.

Lawrence Howell, the sports books buyer for WH Smith and John Menzies, identifies two main growth areas in sports sales - life stories, and what he describes as the "Fever Pitch-type book" - more literary efforts, often in the first person, following in the wake of Nick Hornby's 1992 bestseller.

"Botham's book was a signal to a lot of other sportsmen and women about sales that could be made from their stories," Howells said.

Can the boom last? "You have to accept that you are sometimes influenced by events and results," Howells said. "If England had won the World Cup this year, for instance, there would have been 30 or so books out for Christmas, and two or three of them would have been bestsellers. I don't see why the boom shouldn't last. The appeal of sport is very strong."

That appeal is often encouraged by the subjects of the books themselves. "It's no coincidence," says Michael Doggart, publishing director of Collins Willow, "that Dickie Bird and Ian Botham each visited around 30 bookshops for signings, and committed themselves to three solid weeks of publicity."

Twenty years ago, sportsmen would not have done that.

The new market conditions make it worthwhile for certain sporting heroes to venture back into print. Doggart cites Peter Beardsley, whose autobiography, published in 1996, sold around 35,000 - more than twice the sales generated by his first life story published back in the 1980s.



IN THE country of the blind drunk, the pie-eyed man is king and Tony Adams became a remarkable monarch.

Millions of words have been written about Adams, the inspirational leader of football men who never says die, and about his traumatic personal life; the break-up of his marriage, his imprisonment for drink-driving and the admission that he was an alcoholic. But the most powerful words are his own as told to journalist Ian Ridley.

Adams obviously felt compelled as part of his ongoing therapy to record his degrading fall. There can be no other reason for such honest, painful soul-baring.

His story should one day make a powerful film, perhaps another Lost Weekend. For Adams, several weekends were lost due to his astonishing Sunday drinking habits: a typical session consisted of about 20 pints of Guinness down the pub, topped up with a couple of bottles of wine in the evening. Bill, the landlord, told him he was the best Guinness drinker in the pub, something Adams regarded as highly as his medals and England caps.

Bed-wetting became a regular embarrassment, highlighted during the European Championship finals of 1988 in West Germany when, after defeat by the Netherlands, some of the players drowned their sorrows. When he awoke next morning, Adams discovered his bed was soaked and a chambermaid was standing, holding her nose and saying: "Pee pee." He was ashamed but not enough at that stage to stop drinking. The story of his eventual recovery is remarkable, but tinged with what might have been. As his manager, Arsene Wenger, told him: "Tony, I cannot believe how you achieved everything you have with the way you abused your body and your mind. You have played to only 70 per cent of your capacity."

Humour is sprinkled around Adams' dark story. He recalls the journey to prison in 1990 when a fellow convict being transferred with him remarked: "This has really capped my day. I'm a Tottenham fan and I get 'cuffed to you. What a nightmare." Tony Adams knows all about nightmares.



WINNERS OF the Newdigate Prize for Poetry include John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold and Oscar Wilde. It is a reasonably safe bet that, unlike the 1985 winner, none of them went on to sign up for the aikido course to which the Japanese Old Bill are subjected. Well, dear old Oscar, possibly.

Robert Twigger was washed up in two rooms in Fuji Heights, with Chris the tax avoidance genius and Fat Frank, a former wrestler and belly dancer. His way out of the torpor and aimlessness was to sign up for a year's exploration of all the pain available to man.

The style of aikido was "Yoshinkan", which translates literally as "the place of the spirit", but in his first lesson, "it felt like there were bombs going off all over the place, that I was back in some nightmarish First World War scenario." The teacher tells them that when he started training, he made his will. "I wanted to be prepared to die," he said.

In the first week, one of Twigger's colleagues suffered a minor seizure, and it soon transpired that the only reason for leaving the mat without permission was to throw up - if you did not make it to the toilet, it was acceptable to open your dogi top and be sick into that. As body and spirit hardened (and it was the spirit the teachers were truly working on), Twigger grew almost to become a "connoisseur" of pain. Not that he had much choice: "One policeman who suffered a mild heart attack during training was sent back from the club with a curt 'weak' written on his report."

Though Twigger writes mostly about the course and its colourful characters, there are some evocative vignettes of Japanese society, particularly his hesitant relationship with an indigenous girlfriend and a terrifying excursion into Japanese dentistry. Jay McInerney's novel Ransom covered the same kind of territory, but Twigger's book is not only better written, it also has the virtue of authenticity. Perhaps a more marginal "sports" book than others on the shortlist, Angry White Pyjamas is none the less a page-turning account of the indestructibility of the human spirit.



"IF YOU have read bad reviews of this book," goes the joke on the introductory page of Colin Shindler's book, "they will have been written by Manchester United fans. Bad word of mouth will have originated from the same source."

Colin Shindler's book is essentially his sporting autobiography, following his support of Manchester City and, to a lesser extent, Lancashire County Cricket Club.

The author grew up in Prestwich in a Jewish family and the book chronicles his love and enthusiasm for his team which is shared with a close group of friends who accompany him to matches. His love of cricket, meanwhile, is nurtured by his eccentric Uncle Laurence. Formative experiences shape the young Shindler; the Manchester derby of 1955, the Trautmann FA Cup final the following year, City winning the FA Cup final in 1968 only for United to capture the European Cup three weeks later.

Unfortunately, the undoubted excitement on the pitch does not transfer so well to the page. It has the feel of a memoir published by a pensioner who survived the Blitz, someone with an urge to tell their unique story. One can almost hear the conversation between the author and his publisher, reminding the 49-year-old screenwriter-turned- author to keep the writing informal as it is, after all, intended merely for football fans.

While not exactly dull, the book is not carefully written which could explain why transfer sums are "princely", Lancashire mills "satanic", blows "sickening" and errors "fatal".

On the positive side, it isn't entirely free of humour. There is a good joke on the opening page about the Manchester City defender Bobby Kennedy ("Why the hell would anyone shoot Bobby Kennedy?" I asked. "We've just won the league.") and a pertinent observation that the Royal Family fit the profile of out-of-town Manchester United fans: "They live nowhere near Manchester, they know nothing about football, they've never been to Old Trafford, but they go to the Cup final."



IT IS appropriate, as we enjoy an Ashes winter, to recall an Ashes summer. But to recall it with a difference.

The journalist David Hopps captains Thorner Mexborough CC, a village on the north-east fringes of Leeds. Thorner play in the Wetherby League and in the hilarious We're Right Behind You, Captain the village side's fortunes would appear to matter to Hopps just a smidgeon more than those of England. In a deft piece of writing the author records his troubled year as Thorner captain and sets it against the ups and downs of the England captain, Michael Atherton.

Hopps records moments of pure village slapstick in his typically wry fashion and slyly interfaces it with Atherton's tribulations as he leads the creme de la creme of England's cricketers.

Throughout the book Hopps includes apposite quotes from the press and must have taken great delight when, during the second Cornhill Test at Lord's, Alan Lee of The Times thundered: "England's shame came from a session in the field, on Saturday, that would have embarrassed a village team."

No doubt Thorner, a sensitive crew at the best of times, would have put up a better show, but Hopps has his own problems on the club's tour to Sri Lanka in the February of that year. They lost every match. The captain's comment after the crushing six-wicket defeat by Old Thomians Swimming Club was telling. England had just completed a poor tour of Zimbabwe, losing the one-day series 3-0 and drawing the two Tests. Hopps writes: "England can take heart - another 11 club cricketers now realise the demands of playing overseas. We are so heavily outplayed on a steamily hot day that only some sterling drinking into the early hours secures the promise of a return fixture."

This book is not merely a vehicle to promote Hopps's unquestioned ability as a witty writer and perceptive observer of human behaviour. He has serious points to make and does so with cogent argument.



A FAVOURITE story concerning Jimmy White happened last year. Snooker's "Whirlwind" was partying with aggressive intent as night turned to dawn and Ronnie Wood sidled up to a colleague. "The trouble with Jimmy," said a man who has spent a large proportion of his adult life working and playing with Keith Richard, "is that he keeps some bad company."

When a Rolling Stone is concerned about your lifestyle you ought to worry, but Jimmy? Come off it, he will have enjoyed the paradox of it more than anyone. Proud of it, even.

White's story is one of a little boy who has never grown up, whose instinct when faced with responsibility is to hide either behind booze or gambling. In someone else it would be pathetic but mud refuses to stick to him. A mumbled apology, an embarrassed smile and the world opens its arms, which is a lovely blessing to have.

White, somehow, has managed to become the embodiment of everyone's free spirit. You fear where his life might have gone if, at eight, he and a friend had not fled into a snooker club to escape overwhelmingly poor odds in a fist fight. "The floor was awash with cigarette ash and stubs and there was a kind of dusty, musty, beery, smoky, almost soot-like ... I heard the click of balls and then a clunk and a faint rumble like thunder as the ball dropped into the pocket."

The book is packed with evocative language like this which makes splendid reading but pushes the autobiography element into the realms of fantasy. White could not read when he left school and is never as erudite as he appears in print. Rosemary Kingsland is a good writer and she deserved better than a mention on an inside page.

Having said that, the book would have been appreciably better if a snooker expert had read it at the proof stage. Describing the Embassy World Championship trophy as the world cup rankles, but to describe arguably the best snooker player ever, Joe Davis, only as "the greatest billiard player in the world" is sacrilege.



TAKE A holiday. On your own. A week. Make sure there are no phones, no fools, no TV sets. No distractions of any sort. Ditch the sunblock and bucket and spade. There will be be no time for any of those frivolities.

If you wear glasses or contact lenses bring along a spare pair, because the chances are they will be worn out by your most important item of luggage - Donald McRae's Winter Colours - Changing Seasons in World Rugby.

This grand oeuvre is the best book on rugby to hit the shelves since Stephen Jones' Endless Winter.

What is perhaps most endearing about this intensely written work is that it can irritate as well as stimulate. McRae, who won the William Hill Award in 1996, spent a year rubbing shoulders with the world's heroic rugby figures. Not just rubbing shoulders, but providing his own for them to cry on. He achieves levels of intimacy that elude many others.

The autobiographical passages covering his early life as a liberal white youth in racist-ravaged South Africa reveals someone torn desperately between his love for sport and his country, and the contempt in which he holds the hardline Boers. The Afrikaaners, traditional butts of liberal humour, turn into heroes when they pull on the green and gold. But throughout the account of his early life in the Republic there is the underlying impression that McRae and his friends wanted to be accepted by the Boetjies (little farmers).

And ultimately, as the odyssey through Tests and Super 12 rugby around the globe unfolds, there is the unshakeable impression that McRae has resolved the dilemma of his personal conflict. He can, and does, straddle the horns of hero worship and contempt, albeit from afar.

The vehicle of this epic is the charismatic Springbok wing James Small, who emerges as sympathetic, with (amazingly) a sense of humour and depth of feeling, certainly not evident when he sports the green and gold.

Mr McRae has written another winner, whatever the judges decide.