British sports writing is mediocre, full of cliche and lacking in humour
Chip McGrath, the former literary editor of the New York Times Book Review, is fond of offering this neat summation of American sports writing: the smaller the ball, the better the writer. America has a rich tradition of literary sports writing and much of the best is indeed about baseball and golf, games in which the ball is very small.
To read John Updike or Rick Reilly on golf or Bernard Malamud or Roger Angell of the New Yorker on baseball is to understand once again that, contrary to what relativism asserts, it is not that all subjects of inquiry are of equal value but that all subjects are of equal interest; that one can and should try to write as well and intelligently about golf as about lyric poetry or opera; that the old distinctions between high and low culture, between what is popular and what is arcane and obtuse, are meaningless when a writer is as good as Updike and as interested as he is in the domestic and the mundane.
In Britain, the trouble with writing about sport is that we have no real canon of sports literature, no novel to compare with Malamud's The Natural or book of reportage to rival The Fight, Norman Mailer's account of the clash between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman - "the rumble in the jungle" - in Zaire in 1974. There is no great British novel that is even tangentially about sport, that takes the sporting life, or a certain distance from it, as Richard Ford did in his novel The Sportswriter, to create something true and remarkable. Nor is there a commanding figure around whom younger writers can gather and learn.
Instead, we have the mediocrity of so much contemporary sports journalism: the embrace of cliche, the absence of humour, the prurience, the absurd ghosted columns, the ahistorical features and the poorly researched profiles. The best piece I read about Euro 2004 was not by a regular sports journalist; it was by Martin Amis, who was nowhere near Portugal. He was in Uruguay, where he spends part of each year, watching on television. From there he wrote about the failings of the English team - their inability to retain possession, the vainglorious antics of David Beckham, the bullet-headed Wayne Rooney - with unsurpassed humour and understanding. Reading Amis on football - rather than on 11 September 2001, or the terror of Stalin - is to be reminded of what a fine writer he can be when he is not trying to find a subject appropriate to the grandeur of his prose style.
One day it would be interesting to read him on cricket, which before the press box became a retirement home for former players used to attract writers of distinction: Neville Cardus, John Woodcock, Matthew Engel and, most recently, Michael Henderson. Something about the languor and drift of cricket, the richness of its past and its dense statistical records inspires good writing. Perhaps it is the brevity of the English summer, the white clothing, the associations with the old empire and the essential slowness of the game in an age addicted to speed and novelty that gives cricket its peculiarly melancholy appeal.
Yet, with the exception of C L R James's Beyond a Boundary, which was as much about politics and Caribbean history as it was about cricket, I cannot think of a truly great book about our summer game. There are some memorable poems, however, none more so than this, from A E Housman's A Shropshire Lad:
Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man's soul.
Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.
Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder 'tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.