Brian Viner: A list of bad books is incomplete without sport's many turkeys

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Robin Ince's Bad Book Club is the eponymous comedian's homage, published earlier this month, to really execrable books.

It's very funny and I recommend it. He skewers self-help manuals and thrillers, poetry books and sex books, but has most fun in the chapter on autobiographies. Among the works cruelly but wittily dismantled are the life stories of Cliff Richard, Syd Little, Michael Flatley and Don Estelle, Lofty the comedy bombardier in It Ain't Half Hot, Mum, who as Ince points out, is keen to show where his life stands in the context of world history: "I was born in Manchester on 22 May, 1933, the day Herr Hitler became chancellor of Germany. He was to give many evil fruits to the world a few years later." It is, Ince muses, a distinctly odd choice of words, making a genocidal despot sound rather like a malevolent greengrocer.

Regrettably, Ince has omitted sport from his Bad Book Club, which must either be because he's not an enthusiast, or because he is planning a sequel devoted to sport and nothing else. After all, it's hard to think of any genre of literature that has been more scarred by lazy, exploitative writing, and it is all too ironic that the exploits of men and women of supreme fitness and athleticism should so often be described in such flat, leaden prose.

Sport has also, I should swiftly add, yielded some of the finest works of non-fiction ever written. And some wonderful fiction, too. A tattered old copy of P G Wodehouse's Golf Omnibus is among my most treasured possessions. But is there any book as dispiriting to the eye as the ghosted autobiography of a footballer not yet 30, shamelessly cashing in on a single successful season, or even a singularly unsuccessful World Cup? Joey Barton, not a man often quoted approvingly here at The Last Word, got it dead right when he poured scorn over the slew of memoirs published after the 2006 World Cup: "We got beat in the quarter-finals. I played like shit. Here's my book." Quite so. And it's not just football. I can think of rugby union players, cricketers, boxers, tennis players and racing drivers who have ridden similar sorry bandwagons.

Of course, by lambasting such works I am to an extent snapping at the hand that feeds me. When a sportsman's life story is published, I am often among those offered an interview as part of the promotional campaign. As a consequence, I suspect I have read (albeit sometimes very quickly, on the bus) more sporting books than most, and it is no occupational perk, I can tell you. Still, it gives me an advantage over the subject of a newly published, ghosted autobiography, who more often than not won't quite have got round to opening his own book. "Don't put this in your article, mate, but I haven't read it," is an all-too-common refrain.

Happily, there are still sportsmen and women who feel an obligation to give the public their money's worth. One such is the cyclist Bradley Wiggins, whose brilliant autobiography was intended, he told me himself, to be an antidote to all the "crap". He had read Rio Ferdinand's book, he told me, "but after a while I'm like, 'Hang on, where's the story?'"

In the case of Ferdinand's England team-mate Ashley Cole, tedium wasn't the problem. Indeed, it was compellingly readable in the way that we can't tear our eyes away from a road accident. "When I heard Jonathan [Barnett, his agent] repeat the figure of £55k [a week, £5,000 less than Cole expected Arsenal to offer], I nearly swerved off the road. 'He is taking the piss Jonathan!' I yelled down the phone ... I was trembling with anger. I couldn't believe what I had heard."

That passage earned Cole plenty of opprobrium at the time, but I don't see why we shouldn't cough up a little more, for it is still the transcendent example of a pampered footballer losing touch with reality, and a cert, surely, for Robin Ince's Bad Sports Book Club.

Football needs to chill out and give us all a summer break

The comfort of knowing that the Premier League season does not begin until next month will expire in less than 24 hours. Then it will be August and before we know where we are, the whole carousel will have juddered into full-speed action once again, having barely come to a stop since May.

Even in summers of World Cups and European Championships, there used to be a welcome month or so when football was more or less cleared from the back pages, giving cricket, golf, athletics, tennis and cycling their few weeks in the sun. Sport, like fruit, used to be seasonal. Some of it still is. But football has become a daily perennial, the transfer window ensuring that even when there are no games to cover, the transfer or even the rumoured transfer of a player from one club to another is enough, in some media outlets, to eclipse anything happening in any other sporting arena.

The odd thing is, this whinge makes me sound like someone who hates the game. I don't. I love it, and the truth is that when the close-season football stories are right there in front of me, I follow them as avidly as anyone. But I look forward to the day when a newspaper editor or radio station controller is brave enough to force the beast into a cave for a little while, not only giving all those tireless football correspondents a proper break, but the rest of us too. Then we'll all reach the middle of August with our batteries fully recharged. As it is, mine are worryingly corroded.