Simon Barnes's reflections on sport's "meaning" too often come at the expense of his subjects. He should get back to writing about what he sees, not what he thinksby Robert Colls / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
The Meaning of Sport, by Simon Barnes (Short Books, £16.99)
It’s the 2004 European football championships and this is how Simon Barnes starts his book: “I am in a state of mild terror. I am sitting at a table in a café in Lisbon, having eaten a pleasant lunch with a couple of very pleasant crisp cold beers. The weather is overcast, cool, easy. This evening, England play Croatia: if they (should I say we? Definitely not) draw or win, they continue to the next stage… if Croatia win, they go through, England go out.”
Now, just after lunch in a beautiful city with a grandstand seat to look forward to, and a five-star hotel to come back to, why on earth should Barnes be in the grip of terror? Is it to do with his surroundings? Hardly. He loves café society and as he eats he is savouring Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet—”the great Portuguese novel.” Well, is it because of the shame defeat would bring to England? Not at all. He tells us he doesn’t feel English anyway, isn’t impressed by the England fans (men he’d cross the M25 to avoid) and is no stranger to the ironies of defeat. Good. So what is it? Well, to put it more plainly than he does, it’s the prospect of being Simon. For after the match, and before returning to his hotel “cell,” he has to file 700 words on 11 footballers he doesn’t know or understand taking part in something he doesn’t think is important or, at any rate, doesn’t think is as important as “world peace” or “the ecological holocaust that is to come.” Poor old Simon. “I would much sooner be in Suffolk than in Lisbon. Ride my horses, play with my children, hug my wife.” But being chief sports writer of the Times, he can’t. Like Beckham, the England captain, Barnes has to deliver that night. Sitting like Buddha in his five-star cell in all the hotels of the world—mineral water to the side of him, laptop to the front of him—Simon has to write about sport.
That’s chapter one. Only another 157 chapters, or “meanings,” to go. If you like the idea of people having ideas about the idea of sport, you’ll enjoy this book. If you don’t, you should spend your money elsewhere.
Modern sports writing has not been short of stars. The best of them—Lardner, Hemingway, Mailer, Ford, Remnick and Rotella on that side of the Atlantic; Cardus, Arlott, Storey, McIlvanney, Keating, Hopcraft and Burn on this—told you what it was like to take a hit, or give one, to be in the frame or out of it, and then, and only then, allowed some more generalised observation, having earned the right, as it were. They found their art in sporting endeavour and not the reverse. Hazlitt saved it to the very end. Only the morning after does he realise the significance of “The Fight”: that it had been “a complete thing.”
In this company, Barnes has a way to go. For a start, his book has far too many solecisms to brush aside. He is the “chief sports writer,” after all, and predicates without subjects, subjects without verbs, odd tenses and incongruous connections make you wonder. Sometimes he just blurts it out. At other times, he has to mow his way to the meaning. Either way we get more than we deserve, or he intended:
“Every sportswriter is James Joyce, seeking each day to write a brief and unforgettable Ulysses.”
“I have not established myself as a great novelist.”
“Me, I approve of moral behaviour.”
“Napoleon would ask of his generals: ‘has he luck?’ I ask of athletes: ‘has he Redgrave?'”
The real problem with Barnes is not that he lacks “Redgrave,” or luck, but that he tends to write at the expense of his subjects. Every chapter carries an idea, and every idea requires a sporting hero to carry it. So Napoleon finds himself in the same sentence as Stephen Redgrave, TS Eliot finds himself in the same idea as Juventus football club and, quite horribly, Occam’s razor finds itself doing business in the back streets of Glasgow. At best, Barnes’s ideas are folksy. You learn a bit of Nietzsche, you learn a bit of rugby. At worst, they are banal.
Occasionally, on a good page, there are aperçus to savour. When, for instance, Barnes reflects on the powerful shining horses of his own sport, showjumping, or when he says that it is poetic faith rather than sporting heroism that was the true public school culture, or when he argues that it was the Englishness of Wimbledon that stopped Henman from winning, he is worth your time. But all too soon he’s back to his old ways, squinting through the sun for a big idea to hang on the shoulders of the young Miss Sharapova.
Barnes is a top-flight journalist. He doesn’t need my plaudits for sure. But I’m sorry to say that this book of sporting pensées didn’t work for me. It’s not that I think 700 words is easy, or that Barnes fails as a writer. I’m an academic, after all, so I know what really bad writing looks like. It’s just that when it comes to the meaning of sport, Simon should forget being Simon for a moment, forget the chief writer crap, stick to the day job, and start again with what he sees rather than with what he thinks.