Sunday, May 06, 2007
How to Be a Journalist: Clive Everton
It is not every day that I turn the page and find myself in a novel, even one set partly in the snooker world. But in Lionel Shriver's new book, The Post-Birthday World, I am immortalised as one of the "urbane old-timers" of the commentary box. Thanks for the "urbane", Lionel.
The novel examines the choice that Irina McGovern, a bright, educated 43-year-old woman, faces between the conservative, companionable, familiar virtues of Lawrence, her partner of nine years, and Ramsey Acton, a world-class snooker player, who shares with Jimmy White a long history of late-night carousing and the experience of losing six world finals at the Crucible.
As Acton proceeds towards a maximum break in the deciding frame of the World Championship, I cannot recognise my own commentating style when the fictional me exclaims: "I say. Ramsey Acton may have a chance of a 147." Am I being confused with Dan Maskell, the late tennis commentator, who built a career on a handful of catchphrases such as "Ooh, I say", which he was prone to utter as a forehand pass screamed down the line? Nor, on the whole, does the dialogue attributed to my colleagues carry the ring of what we might actually say - although I did treasure Dennis Taylor's "That shot was well prudent, Clive", which is not a formulation I have noticed springing easily to his lips.
It was exciting, however, being a character in the novel, because I read eagerly on to discover what I did next. Perhaps I should muster some indignation at the way in which Snooker Scene, the magazine I have edited for 36 years, is depicted as reporting Acton's romance with Irina: "That trashy little snippet got everything about 'Irina McGavin' all wrong but she cherished her copy as a keepsake." This has cut us to the quick. Snippets yes, trivial on occasion, but trashy? Surely not. All wrong? She must be confusing us with another publication.
And while it is always gratifying to have copies of Snooker Scene "cherished", one can only pity a woman whose self-esteem is so fragile that she is moved to press it to her heart like a rare flower, as if she needs to see her name in print (albeit misspelt) to convince herself she really exists.
In the twilight of his career, it is good to learn, Acton still "reads Snooker Scene from cover to cover", although "when he did so he scowled".
As she contemplates his retirement, Irina cannot see Acton as a BBC commentator - it must be a comfort that he is not so desperate - but still visualises him flicking "self-affectedly" through the pages of Snooker Scene. Again, I am gratified. He can be as self-affected as he likes, as long as he renews his subscription. Nor does she have a firm grasp of a snooker player's priorities. Acton is so absorbed in taking Irina shopping that he does not have time to get on the practice table before he plays Ronnie O'Sullivan.
Several players appear in the book as "themselves", always a tricky manoeuvre. John Higgins is awarded a one-liner; John Parrott's wife Karen has a brief conversation with Irina. Parrott's own demeanour in the arena is amusingly evoked: "Thick black eyebrows shooting to his hairline in astonishment or ploughing noseward in despair, his elastic expression so broadcast every minute of the game that he was effectively a commentator for the deaf." Dominic Dale may not be quite so pleased to be described as a "weedy, green young player" who in the novel, as in real life, wins the 1997 Grand Prix at Bournemouth.
O'Sullivan comes off worst. "A whiner and a sore loser" and "a cocky parvenu" are about the kindest things anyone says about him. Even a notional Bournemouth taxi driver has it in for him: "Hear him caterwaul" - not a word I believe to be in daily usage by the taxi-driving fraternity - "in the first round, like? Never stopped whinging about the baize, the calls, the kicks. Made the ref clean the ball twice, he did." Actually, the real O'Sullivan very rarely whinges about such matters, and if two requests to clean the cue ball seem a lot to this taxi driver, perhaps he should watch Peter Ebdon more. There is nothing to engage libel lawyers in this novel, but it does raise the question of how far an author or screenwriter may legitimately go in using living people as characters and attributing fictional dialogue and actions to them. The same question arose over David Peace's recent novel The Damned United, about Brian Clough's ill-fated 44-day reign at Leeds United.
Shriver's novel progresses towards two versions of a world final against O'Sullivan. In one version, Acton "sank superb pots but never at the sacrifice of position whereas Ronnie couldn't resist spectacular shots designed to impress that netted him a single point". It is difficult to imagine a snooker player such as O'Sullivan doing anything less likely, unless it is Acton "always tap[ping] the rail appreciatively when his opponent racked up a fine clearance". As the non-striker's chair would be some 10 feet away, this would require an extraordinarily long arm.
The alternative version has Acton driving from Sheffield to London after his semi-final so that he can surprise Irina by chauffeuring her personally to the Crucible for the next day's final. A transparent plot device, this is about as likely as the Queen appearing on How Clean Is Your House?. The central character of Ian McEwan's novel Saturday is a brain surgeon. While McEwan's extensive research was marinaded into the narrative, making it easy to believe in him, Shriver's snooker scenes contain more miscues than insights that hit the back of the pocket.
However, she does remind us that "watching a player in whom you have imperfect faith fosters anxiety" - are you listening, Jimmy White? - and that some newly rich players confuse "having a great deal of money with an infinite amount of money". I know a few of those. On the whole, though, it is fair to say that Shriver deals much more convincingly with the eternal triangle than she does with the eternal rectangle.