I am not the naturally sporty sort. As an undiagnosed myopic, I experienced school sports as hockey – beefy girls looming out of the mist and a ball striking painfully on the ankle, lacrosse – the same but higher, and tennis – the same with whippetier girls and added ‘ping’ noise. The last time I picked up a tennis racquet, they were still made of wood and came with the same dinky little wooden presses that people use to press flowers (now there’s another pointless pastime). The school gym revealed my classmates to be either natural shinners up fantastically hairy and painful ropes or – like me- whimperingly earth-fixed. And then there was the horror of the communal changing room. My spectating career was no more illustrious. My father was a rugby referee and many a drear wintry Saturday afternoon of my infancy crawled past on the muddy edges of a playing field somewhere on the London circuit. I did quite like going to Twickenham but I am ashamed to tell you that that had more to do with the picnic. And all I remember of Wimbledon is the strawberries. Oh, and John Newcombe’s luxuriant moustache (I was very young and impressionable – and bored out of my tiny mind).
Rugby league has its own laureate in David Storey, one-time professional player, Yorkshireman and writer. His first novel, This Sporting Life, has in the fifty-something years of its existence given lazy journalists a resonant strapline. It also, in its film version (for which Storey wrote the screenplay) gave the world the mesmerising talent of Richard Harris, surely the most dedicated of the British/Celtic Ratpack. Storey also wrote The Changing Room, a play which pre-dates The Full Monty and avoids its saccharine tendencies but shares its focus on the lives of working-class northern men. I am suddenly, if mildly, possessed with the desire to stage a musical version: a sort of it’s-grim-oop-north Chorus Line.
Tennis is less well served (sorry). Granted, we have the game Cecil won’t play in A Room with a View, and the young men in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September come from a world of garden parties and lawn tennis. But a game which is based upon the repression of wild emotion (or used to be) and involves standing rather decorously either side of a net is a difficult setting for the unfolding of grand passion (this is, as you can see, a direct challenge to the novelists and short-story writers among you. Rush directly to your laptop, tablet, or pen and paper and give us the Wuthering Heights of the tennis court please).
Cycling ought to be a hotbed of good plots, if the real-life scandals of recent years are anything to go by. But the only book worth reading that has come out of the whole two-wheeled business is Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel, and even that isn’t a patch on its boating prequel. Incidentally, pure NorthernReader outrage has been provoked by the news that a council in Yorkshire has ordered the taking-down of lovingly hand-knitted tiny Tour de France jerseys from lamp-posts on the grounds that they might be too much weight for the posts to bear. If the good citizens of Yorkshire rise as one and refuse to pay any Council Tax at all, they will have the comfort of knowing that the Northern Reader is cheering them on.
So has any fictional good come out of the pointless human endeavour that is sport? Well, yes, hurray for PG Wodehouse. A keen golfer, his ‘Oldest Member’ short stories are a total joy and are particularly useful in pointing out the romantic potential of a round of golf. No mean cricketer, Wodehouse also gave us Mike and its eponymous opening bat. A fictional cricketing XI would have to include him, together with Lord Peter Wimsey, whose exploits on the pitch at Eton and Lord’s trail glory before him, almost to his undoing in Murder Must Advertise. As always with Wimsey, his creator’s besottedness does rather open him to the charge of naughty showing-off, and you do really have to have seen a match yourself to make any sense of the goings-on in the novel, but it is at least quite enjoyable. No, I’m afraid that I side with EM Forster’s Maurice, who ‘hated cricket. It demanded a snickety neatness he could not supply.’ Wonderful. We’ll have an anti-sport bookshelf, then, and Maurice shall begin it.
Children’s books, of course, tended in the past to be fully signed-up to the importance and benefits of playing for one’s team/House/school/country. Girls in particular seemed to come in for a lot of exhorting to be frightfully good at sport. Dear kindly writers, illustrators and publishers of Girl, Schoolfriend and the like, did you really think you could change the natural inclination of millennia with a few well-chosen lines about winning the trophy for your chums? If there is a gender difference out there, it is that girls aren’t so easily conned. You will notice that Jane Austen’s heroines do not have to resort to displays of running, jumping or swimming to achieve their goals: unless we count Elizabeth Bennet’s muddy yomp to Netherfield as a competitive sport – and I think we probably should, but her victory is a psychological one (the feminine sport of choice).
And so we come, reluctantly, to football. Who in the name of God called it the beautiful game? And what were they thinking? Yes, I know Albert Camus played a bit, and claimed to have enjoyed it, and yes I also know that there is a book by Nick Hornby about watching the stuff. Well, Mr Hornby, purely in the interest of rigorous academic research, I have now watched a match. It was England playing someone or other. And it made me yearn for the fierce lyrical poetry of watching mould grow on a wall. Now, excuse me, I have some dogs who would like me to kick a ball about with them …