Tuesday 24 April 2018

No joy in books of revelations

Eamonn Sweeney

Listen to this. "You can map out a fight plan or a life plan, but when the action starts, it may not go the way you planned, and you're down to your reflexes -- that means your preparation. That's where your roadwork shows. If you cheated on that in the dark of the morning, well, you're going to get found out now, under the bright lights."

The late Joe Frazier might not have been an educated man, he left school young to work on a white man's farm in South Carolina, but any writer would be glad to have come up with something as succinctly poetic as that last sentence. It's proof that if you ask a man, or a woman, about something they really know or love you'll get an interesting answer. What Smokin' Joe said might have a general application to life but it's also specific to his own milieu. In it you can hear the knowledge of pounding that road in the dark and standing in the ring with the crowd baying and an opponent closing in.

We go to sporting autobiographies for insights like that. And sometimes we get them. The great works in the genre, Eamon Dunphy's Only A Game, Paul Kimmage's Rough Ride, Ball Four by the baseball pitcher Jim Bouton, A Lot of Hard Yakka by the Middlesex cricketer Simon Hughes and the masterpiece which towers above them all, The Game by Ken Dryden of ice hockey's Montreal Canadiens, tell us things we don't know and give us a window into an existence very different from our own.

These books are very much in the minority because few literary genres are more debased than that of the sporting autobiography, populated as it is by so many slapdash ghost-written potboilers of the "Nobby knocked it down the wing to Jonesie who crossed it into the middle where I arrived just in time to head it past their 'keeper" variety. Perhaps the best comment on these ignoble creatures is that of the basketball star Charles Barkley who commented about his own 'autobiography': "I should have read it before it came out."

But the big growth area in recent years has been of the sporting autobiography where sport largely takes a back seat to the enumeration of various personal problems. This is understandable. Publishers are no daws and they can see that there's a huge public appetite for what London-Irish poet John Lydon described as "cheap holidays in other people's misery."

It's an appetite which led to James Frey and sundry other chancers publishing narratives of harrowing dysfunction whose relationship to reality was at best tangential and newsagent's shelves being filled by cheerful-looking, colourful little mags with front-page teasers along the lines of, "My hubby sacrificed our children to Satan and farted in bed."

These days no sports book seems complete without its tale of woe. Depression, drinking, fighting, infidelity and gambling have all gotten their run-out. It's notable that these sections are not just the ones which tend to be serialised by the papers and picked out by the chat show hosts but that, when you read the book, they're the bits the most work seems to have gone into. Writers and editors have spent a lot of time getting the misery just right. The sports side of things, which is ostensibly why the book was written in the first place, gets dealt with pretty perfunctorily. You have a sense of people dutifully hurrying through all that boring stuff so they can get to the weepy bit.

Which is odd. Because it's what sportsmen do on the field or the track or in the ring that actually makes them interesting. Very few people have an inkling of what it's like to perform at the highest level in sport. By doing so, the sportsman has already attained an extreme of human experience. He, or she, though women never write these books, has done something pretty unique.

Whereas, to be blunt about it, we all have problems. Life being the barrel of laughs that it is, we all suffer personal tragedies, incur disappointments and from time to time behave unwisely. The confessional sportsman is telling us nothing we don't know about already unless we've lived an unusually lucky life or a very sheltered one.

Sometimes a revelation is worth making. Dónal óg Cusack's coming out was a genuinely important moment because homosexuality is such a taboo in the macho world of sport.

But it still says something about the skewed priorities of the new model autobiography that the rest of his book was as dull as a particularly brackish variety of ditchwater.

There have been several books where the accounts of being on the verge of suicide, struggling with the drink etc didn't quite ring true. You wondered if the authors had taken the James Frey route and, while not exactly making things up, spiced them up a bit with an eye to the Christmas market. And if perhaps the urge to spill the beans is symptomatic of the narcissism which may have caused the trouble in the first place.

When a young man bemoans all the kinky sex he's had, remorse is perhaps not the only emotion at work. And even where a sportsman has real problems you wonder if all this soul-baring is necessarily good for them. No one has been more open about his troubles than Paul McGrath yet all this candour has sadly seemed to make life even more difficult for him.

What these memoirs betray is a fundamental lack of trust in sport itself. I suspect publishers have a lot to do with this and that some of them believe sport alone isn't really an interesting enough subject for a whole book. Yet look at Eamon Dunphy's Only A Game, one of the undisputed masterpieces of the genre. It is a small book about an undistinguished season by Millwall, half of which the author was dropped for. Yet once read it's never

forgotten because Dunphy is such a good writer and so scrupulously honest an observer you get a completely new angle on the life of the professional footballer. And, in its own low-key way, it is as moving as a Raymond Carver story, moving in a way that the gaudy public confessionals never manage to be. Dunphy doesn't feel the need for personal revelation in Only A Game. God knows what he got up to in London during the 1970s, but we don't need to.

You'd miss books like that. Books which didn't treat you as an inhabitant of the valley of the squinting windows. The champions of the new breed sometimes defend all this washing of dirty linen with the claim that a famous person banging on about their sins can help plebs with similar problems. Perhaps a couple of decades of celebrity tell-alls really have led to a precipitous drop in the numbers of those struggling with drugs, drink and gambling. Or perhaps not.

Anyway, better dash. Scarlett Johansson and Kate Moss are waiting for me in the sack. Truly, I have plumbed the depths of misery this time. Hang on, who's that at the door? Megan Fox. Oh no. Hell, I'm telling you, that's what my life is. Pure hell.


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