A Man's World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith by Donald McRae, Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire by Martin Fletcher, ire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet by Simon Lister, Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager by Michael Calvin, The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain by David Goldblatt
This is a glorious part of my life. And I know it. I’m busy and leisured all at once. My income more than equal to my needs. Enough demands to keep me honest and enough time to fulfil all of those and more at my own pace. Even at my busiest I found time to read, watch films, watch singers sing and painters paint. No life this without a daily read, a weekly film, a monthly play. With time now being mostly mine, I’ve simply doubled and trebled what went before. What’s that? A matinee in Manchester? What time’s the train? I’ll be there in a front row seat. I tend to keep the range to a hundred miles. It gives me extra pleasure to share the train, the tram with those who still slave to pay the bills. In my prime I often wished to drive straight past the factory walls, the school gates, the office door. And now I can. I’d be a fool not to. There are plenty of us. A silver grey army fill the theatre seats, enjoy the opera and ballet and county cricket in the afternoon. You’ll find them strolling down the banks of Lathkill and Dove, enjoying tea and cake in cafes that enjoy their trade.
My needs are simple. The walls of my house contain most everything I want. And when out, though I like to cross national boundaries and speak a different tongue, England holds most of what I crave. I like an old church to feel as much as see, a hill to climb and trees to wander in between. To watch the seasons pass slow day by day, the leaves from bud to fall; the ever-changing colours of it all. Most often just with sheepdog for company. She’s a Johnson after-all; but also Clare and Coleridge, Thomases (Welsh (x2) and English), Hughes and Gentleman and Byng and Defoe and Bryson and all who’ve trod these paths before. Two travel writers are we, Jolly and me.
In winter though I tend to stay close and close the door. Light a fire and read still more. Each Christmas among the many presents (far more than I deserve, I’m sure) a pile of books from Charlie, my eldest boy, now a man. He knows his sport. We’ve shared the stand at many a game of football, cricket and the northern code. He’s taken it on further than ever I did. He knows his stuff and writes with a blend of skill and humour that could see him among the very best. My word! but I am proud of my children and what they have become; surpassing me by far in each their ways and achieving those two goals that I strove so hard to reach; independence and niceness. Quite the nicest children I have known.
The pile from Charlie are all sports books. These days I have a shelf or two. A section of my library that is a winter thing. And here I’ll start a little of my blog that is to do with reading. I’m almost addicted: have been from back along, but now I’ve allowed a habit to grow. Most of these last seven years have seen me pass a hundred books and fulfil many a dream; adding Melville, and Trollope and the complete Charlie D and Brontës three and many, many more I really should have read before. I’ve read every winner of the Carnegie prize to keep me with the changing shape and forms of children’s books. I’ve read books on subjects that school tried to separate from mine and have indulged in science tomes and history and geography and maths and food. I have a bookcase devoted to books about the north and another exclusively to rugby league. I’ve bought books of my own since paper-round days and have acquired several thousand which leaves plenty yet unread; ready to be devoured, explored. When T’s mother died we inherited many a thousand more and my own folks’ books (divided between six) still meant a need to put up yet more shelves. I don’t go much for objets d’art, big cars and I no longer give much regard to fine wines and rolled cigars. But I do like my books. And intend to read as many as I can before I go. I don’t have targets and neither have I limits. If its been published and I fancy reading it, it gets read. Morning, afternoon and as I sit in bed.
This year Charlie has chosen books that were short-listed for the William Hill Prize for the best sports book of the year. Over time I’ve read many winners and those that made the short-list. It is one literary prize I truly have respect for. Sportswriting is a very special genre. At its best it has something that no other writing has. There are some great names on my shelf: Norman Mailer, Paul Gallico, CLR James to name but three. These writers (and many more) transcend their sports and find a metaphor or two to take life philosophically through the higher, faster further of human endeavour. Some sports have been truly blessed over the years, and not always the sports you’d expect to find a man with a silver pen at ringside or in the stand. Boxing has attracted the very best, and cricket draws a few. I suppose there is more time watching England’s summer game to contemplate eternity (or experience it.) Some sports have never done much to attract the reader’s time. Anything with an engine attached – if you can call them sports – though horses are a different matter. It doesn’t all have to be a person’s muscles here. Golf is a sport I like to play but hate to watch; tennis is another. The first has made a scribe or two, the second happier in the gossip columns than the wordsmith’s page. The world’s most popular sports: fishing and football (soccer) depending on who is supplying the figures: have never made much impact after Walton and Cotton died. Until recently that is. Fishing not so much as a sport, though we mustn’t forget Hemingway. Soccer was the blandest of coverage for decades until it blossomed. Now year on year it attracts writers of every journalistic skill and one or two who belong even higher up the tree.
So, once Christmas passed from feasts and family to the more solitary quiet time between the feast of Stephen and Hogmanay, I turned to my presents. And what a treat they held. In not much more than a week I’d read all five. And think them all deserving of the prize. I’m unsure of the rights and wrongs of saying that one book is better than all the rest but with many a thousand books published every year (and finite time even for us grey adventurers) it’s good to have a filter or two; someone to draw us up a reading list.
The books I read (in the order I read them) were:
Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager by Michael Calvin (Soccer)
A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith by Donald McRae (Boxing)
The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain by David Goldblatt (soccer)
Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet by Simon Lister (cricket)
Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire by Martin Fletcher (Soccer)
All five are remarkable books. I’d like to have had a go at writing them all, but could never have got close to the way they turned out. So I’ll have a go at writing about them instead. This little diversion from my films and bicycle and food will look at each in turn. I was going to give my judgement at the end, but will give it now instead. They all deserved to win. They all deserve to be read by anyone who loves sport and plenty of those who don’t. These aren’t just good sports books. They are good books, period.
I could no more live without words than I could live without air.