Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Sports Book Reviews from The Bulletin
Sports Book of the Year
Silent Revolutions – Writings on Cricket History
Don’t like cricket? Don’t get it? Don’t go away.
Joey Kramer, the Aerosmith drummer, almost gave up music when he first saw Billy Cobham playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970s – the Panamanian seemed to inhabit an unreachable realm. Sometimes when I read the young Australian journalist Gideon Haigh I feel the same, that it’s time to chuck in writing and get a proper job (brickie? clown?). Haigh is one of Australia’s great nonfiction authors, a documentarist of peerless stylistic ease whose subject happens to be cricket.
This beautiful book is a collection of his random essays on the history of cricket – like any nonfiction writer of the top rank, he knows his history, and he knows the rules of his idiom – laid down by John Arlott, Neville Cardus and the great West Indian Marxist C.L.R. James – so he feels confident enough to break them.
Few sports have been as well served by a writer. He ranges from the prosaic pathos of his own club knockabouts with a lumpen bunch of larrikins called the Yarras in a Sydney suburb to the professional pinnacle, Test cricket, with the urbane and unforced method of a great batsman compiling a long innings. He rekindles the latent intellectualism of the situations into which cricket often pitches its players – while never brushing away a grimy drop of the game’s sweaty realities, struggles, suicides. Trundling journeymen are as poetically conjured as the game’s greats, Warne, Richards, Grace. I cite ‘poetry’ – but this poetry is spare and tough as that of Banjo Patterson, the laureate of the outback, without ever lapsing into Ocker self-consciousness. He does what has to be done, and with the minimum effort and the maximum effect. His scattering of reminiscent quotes around a quite gorgeous cameo of the Australian all-rounder Keith Miller – a task apparently so easy to execute, but so difficult, as any writer will tell you - is like the distribution of fruit in a tarte au raisin by a master patissier. To use a cruder metaphor, one man’s cut-and-pasting is another man’s tapestry, and this is of the latter variety because Haigh has his own brand of panache. A history of an Australian cricket association should ‘come with matchsticks for the eyelids’, writes Haigh, yet few can summon as much interest for such a dry subject as he. ‘Doesn’t it make you sick?’ said one English friend of mine after reading this, ‘the Australians aren’t just content with beating the hell out of us at cricket - now they’re better at writing about it.’
I went and picked up a bat for the first time in 25 years when I’d finished this. Much of Haigh’s subject matter will be esoteric to the non-cricket fan (they’re a curious bunch, but one has to live with them). If you don’t get this addictively dotty game, get this book. You’ll get it then. If you love fine writing, get it anyway. A certified masterpiece.
Silent Revolutions is published by Aurum.
Graham Fife’s two books for Mainstream about the Tour de France belong on the shelf of any wheelman. His own memoir, The Beautiful Machine: A Life In Cycling, From the Tour de France to Cinder Hill (Mainstream) never quite grips, and occasionally wobbles like an unaligned rear wheel. There is fashionable emotional incontinence: neglected childhood, rumbustious compensatory sex in adolescence, mid-life crisis. Yeah, yeah. But when he sticks to the bike and draws amusingly pathetic comparisons between his own riding and the giants of the Tour about whom he is so elegantly and powerfully eloquent, without superfluous superstar namedropping, it’s a superb spin. His take on the riders Ivan Basso and Lance Armstrong climbing one of the Tour’s great passes is simply stunning sportswriting.
Other than that, he knows he will never quite make it, but pushes on gamely. Much the same could be said of his prose, which has altogether too much effort, working well in places but wasting energy in others. One wants to stand on the sidelines yelling ‘allez!’ and ‘courage!’
An uphill ride, but as Fife says, it’s worth it in the end for the view from the top.
Anyone who ever caught the whiff of a distantly decaying moral rat about the Olympic Games should read Guy Mitchell’s Berlin Games:How Hitler Stole the Olympic Dream (John Murray). Mitchell’s description of the 1936 Olympiad is a thrill-a-minute muckraker, but also suggests that the ‘Olympic Dream’ wasn’t stolen by Hitler, but could have been gift-wrapped for him. The craze for perfecting human bodily culture that inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s ‘original’ 1896 Athens Olympiad found its ne plus ultra in Nazism – de Coubertin and the big cheese of contemporary Olympism, Avery Brundage, were both anti-semites, for example. The sporting cameos are marvellous – Jesse Owens acclaimed by 100,000 Berliners in the Olympiastadion, the farcical comedy of an Austria-Peru football match, the moral courage of German long-jumper Luz Long in befriending his vanquisher Owens – written by an author with a feel for physical achievement, its ups, downs, silliness and cynicism. Oswald Mosley is there, sundry Mitfords cluck around, the usual infamous fanfanorade of Hitler-worshippers – but there’s also a lot of fun, whose cosmopolitan zest and élan tries to conjure an ideal Olympics out of what was a pretty sorry affair, and points fingers at those who prevented the ideal from ever happening. Good sport should excite – this is an overdose of excitement.
29-stone darts player Andy Fordham once said: ‘I’m a sportsman – I wear trainers and I’ve been on [BBC TV sports programme} Grandstand’. It matters less to quibble about the definition of what is sport and what are games than to talk of angels and pins. Bellies and Bullseyes: The Outrageous True Story of Darts (Ebury) by Sid Waddell, the motormouth, polymath Geordie who helped the BBC make a pub diversion a national must-see, reminds us that playing darts is as ultimately pointless as playing football, but can embody a sizeable range of human experience, usually working-class, but gentlemanly and proud..‘Sizeable’, of course, is the apt adjective for many of the lagered-up podges (Leighton Rees, Jocky Wilson) who gave this brilliantly simple, fiendishly difficult endeavour of accuracy and hand-eye coordination its profile in the UK, and in the Netherlands, the wildly implausible source of the coming men – and women - in darts. Aside of an affectionate portrait of the great Dutch player (and former postman) Raymond Van Barneveld – not to mention his indefatigable wife, Sylvia - a little more could have been written about the game outside the UK, but this is subsidiary.
Waddell’s comparisons with Alexander of Macedon may be a little exalted when a champion like Eric Bristow, ‘The Crafty Cockney’ stands on the oche to throw the next arrow, but his grasp of the irrationale of playing games, and the joys it can bring, is as sure as the irony the players knowingly embody in their costume-jewellery, tattooed machismo. As the subclause in the title implies, this is populist, silly, lovely. So, anyone fancy a pint?
All titles available from Waterstones, 71 Maxlaan, Brussels.
Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell
Memo: if you are lucky enough ever to meet the French cycling great Bernard Hinault, do not mention Paris-Roubaix. Not ever. Despite winning the ‘Queen of the Classics’ [one-day races], Hinault regarded L’Enfer du Nord (The Hell of The North), this headlong 250-km
charge along cobbled farm tracks through the gaunt, war-torn flatlands of northern France as a travesty. Pros shouldn’t ride these roads, he grumbled. Because it’s only after 200km (count ‘em) that the real ‘hell’ of the cobbles begins.
This stupendous book proves him right. And wrong.
Paris-Roubaix is about a race that takes place in France, but no Belgian, or Belgium-dwelling cyclist worth his or her salt would dream of missing it. Nobody will ever match photographer Stefan Vanfleteren’s slim portfolio of Flemish and nordiste cycling impressions, Flandrien (, 2005), but this gargantuan homage to pro cycling’s maddest race punches its weight on its own terms. The English translation from original French journalism is top-notch; nutshelling the whole Paris-Roubaix ethos.
L’Enfer du Nord careers from Compiègne to the supremely dreary post-industrial frontier city that is Roubaix early in every April, often in appallingly wet and muddy conditions. A pic of the Belgian sprinter, Eric Vanderaerden, from 1987, is one of the most evocative portraits of the pitiable mess of sport ever taken. Why do they do it? This book tells you, slickly and briskly, and rarely stints on the superhuman efforts of the riders. It is the ultimate test of the cycling skills and stamina of that inextinguishable breed of Flemish and Nordiste racers; it is as significant to them as the spring equinox. Mardi Gras? Yeah, yeah. For anyone with a bike in Comines or Kortrijk, Mons or Menen, summer only starts with Paris-Roubaix. For some Flemings, they would rather see one of their men win the Paris-Roubaix than the Tour of Flanders. Why? Buy the book.
Crucially, although stacked with stats and stories and stars (Van Steenbergen, Coppi, Merckx, Boonen), the book does not confine its appeal to wheelers. Its pages could have been infused with the smells of stoemp, coal dust and bière de garde. One can never turn a page without expecting to see a frituur in the next picture. Repointed brickwork is inescapable. It is indispensable for anyone who lives in Wallonia, for example, for anyone who knows the dank bruised skies that so often hang over the plains of the forsaken borderlands which the historian Richard Holmes memorably termed ‘the fatal avenue’, the feel for the Belgian French that Vanfleteren so exquisitely and unforgivingly catalogued. The magnificent photographs of the absurdly difficult cobbles of the Foret d’Arenberg, the puddles of slime that line the route on wet days, leave an indelible impression of having been out riding in fresh air and drizzle for hours. It has been compiled because it had to be compiled; there is no other race – save the mighty stage races. Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Vuelta d’Espana - that warrants such loving and meticulous treatment.
Paris-Roubaix is the sensory antipode to the race: it is comforting, easy to read (and always well-written), something to savour over a bottle of Jenlain or Trois Monts beer. It is a treat; its price is something worth putting in extra effort for, like its subject. Ask Bernard Hinault. Actually, don’t.
Paris-Roubaix, A Journey Through Hell is published by Velopress.