The Meaning of Sport / Simon Barnes : Short Books, 2006
Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters : Travels Through England’s Football Provinces / Daniel Gray : Bloomsbury, 2013
For the sake of argument, there are two types of argument about sport (as this piece is going to be structured around collapsible binary oppositions, I may as well start as I mean to go on). So, for the sake of argument, two. The first, which – however heated – has the potential to achieve some kind of resolution, is about matters of detail, or means, by those who assume a common goal. In the second kind, the disputants will always be at cross purposes, and the argument can never be resolved, because their motives for following the sport, and the goals they are hoping to achieve, are quite different and incompatible.
For example, if the point at issue is whether the number of First Class Counties should be reduced, to produce a higher quality of cricket and a more successful England side, two people who follow cricket for reasons of connoisseurship (an informed appreciation of high quality cricket), or national patriotism, will be arguing only as to whether that is an effective means to a commonly agreed end. They may reach agreement with each other, but will never agree with someone whose motives for watching cricket are primarily social (a chance to meet their friends, a sense of belonging), or local patriotism. Cricket is, perhaps, more prone to these intractable arguments than, say, football, because, as well as having a broader emotional range, its followers have a wider range of motives.
This thought occurred to me when the happy serendipity of the charity shop led me to read two books, both ostensibly about sport (they were shelved in the sports section). One was “The Meaning of Sport” by Simon Barnes, the other “Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters” by Daniel Gray. Both are described on their cover as “joyful”, but neither author would, I think, be able to extract much joy from the other’s sporting life. I am not intending to review both books. I enjoyed, and would recommend both, but although the authors are of interest as individuals, I am more concerned with them here as types, as extreme cases of two attitudes to sport, or as polar opposites on a spectrum which I hereby, grandly, dub “the Barnes-Gray Scale”.
To begin with the similarities, both books are accounts of travelling to watch sport over a limited period of time. Barnes, in his then-role as Chief Sportswriter for “The Times”, begins his journey in Portugal in 2004 for the European (Football) Championships, and ends in Summer 2006, in Germany to watch the (Football) World Cup. In between, he takes in Wimbledon, the Olympic Games in Athens, the US Open, the Ryder Cup, the European Cup Final in Istanbul, the 2005 Ashes series, the Winter Olympics (from his home in Suffolk), the Test series in India, and another European Cup Final in Paris. In between, he zooms back and forth, in space and time, from Zambia to Zimbabwe to Japan ; he is menaced by a jaguar, kisses Daryl Hannah, falls off his horse and has frequent misadventures with internet connections.
Gray’s book covers roughly (the chronology is a little vague) the calendar year 2011. He aims, as he turns thirty, to visit the football grounds of those teams who finished first, second and last in the four divisions in the year of his birth, meaning that he ends up in Middlesborough, Sheffield, Luton, Ipswich, Watford, Leyton, Chester, Crewe, Hinckley, Burnley, Bradford, Carlisle and Newquay (sharp-eyed readers may be able to spot a couple of anomalies in that list). His modus operandi (although he doesn’t say so, I think he must have been working from Monday to Friday) is to arrive by public transport on the morning of the match, mooch around town, give us a potted history of the town and the club, have a drink, watch the match, go out on the town (on his own), stay in a cheap hotel, mooch around a bit more and head back to Scotland (where he lives). He, too, encounters difficulties along the way : he is annoyed by some mildly racist old ladies and almost has his notebook confiscated by stewards in Luton, and is accused of “looking like Harry Potter” and being “a paedo” in Middlesborough ; he takes in various pubs and social clubs, a Nando’s, a McDonald’s and the Luton Conservative Club.
Barnes writes like a professional (he describes having to write 600 words in half an hour, and how the ability to do so plausibly is the real mark of a journalist). His book consists of 158 short pieces, each about the length of a newspaper column, and containing at its heart one thought, usually epigrammatically expressed. Some of these epigrams glisten briefly, then burst like soap bubbles ; sometimes the pieces are like an elegant display of Barcelona-style tiki-taka that results in nothing, but usually the thought, once unwrapped from its cocoon of words, is worth having (I realised, on re-reading the book, that I have internalised several of them to the extent that I had forgotten their origin).
Gray (and I mean this as a compliment) writes like a blogger : he rambles, meanders and takes detours as his whimsy takes him ; if he comes across something that takes his fancy, then in it goes into his narrative – talking CCTV cameras in Middlesborough, Benedictine drinkers at Turf Moor, the shops next door to the childhood home of Jarvis Cocker. His writing resembles that of Stuart Maconie (though without the mania for puns) and Harry Pearson (and, if you don’t like either of those, you are unlikely to admire Gray), tinged with a zany, Reeves and Mortimer-style kitchen sink surrealism. Occasionally, an overambitious figure of speech is fired high over the bar into Row Z from thirty yards out (lambs glimpsed from a train are “like white mice climbing ladles in a cutlery drawer”) but, mostly, his style is vivid and droll. A typical passage (and, if you can’t see what this has to do with sport, it might suggest you are a Barnes) might include :
“Lambton Worms of two-up two-downs once more take me to a home ground … Ticket office girls, with whom I spend more time on Saturdays than my wife, ignore me at first. They have an important matter at hand : one has pinched a bacon Frazzle from the other. ‘That’s my dinner, ger off.’ … At half-time, one, two, three then four people all sidle along to the gangway and slip on a battered haddock, discarded at the game’s start as its eater cheered Crewe’s goal.”
The two writers set out their stall in their titles. “Hatters, Knitters and Railwaymen” (the nicknames of Luton Town, Hinckley Athletic and Swindon Town respectively) is concrete, particular and conveys, concisely, that Gray is interested in the way that football clubs preserve the sense of identity that was once generated by local industries. “The Meaning of Sport” is grandly ambitious, abstract, and, apparently, so pretentious that it could, by any other writer, only be intended at least semi-ironically.
Barnes is often accused of pretension ; unfairly, I think, in that he does not pretend to a level of intelligence, or a breadth of cultural reference, that he does not possess. What makes him unusual is that he sees no incongruity in writing about sport in the same way that he approaches high culture, and, therefore, has no sense of the potential for bathetic comedy in doing so (he seems genuinely puzzled and pained by his frequent appearances in Pseuds’ Corner, for instance). He is aware that his habit of selecting a national classic to accompany a tournament, like a gourmet selecting a fine wine to accompany a meal (he takes Pessoa to Portugal, Seferis to Greece, Sei Shonagan to Japan) will strike some as absurd, but he cannot understand why.
Most writers about sport, however high-browed, have, lurking somewhere at the back of their minds, a minatory chorus of stick-giving mates (from the terraces, or the Rugby Club bar), who must be placated with, at least, one layer of self-deflating irony. Barnes, on the other hand, seems to worry that his literary friends will think he is wasting his time writing about sport at all, that he is not being pretentious enough. This is partly, I think, because, unlike Gray, whose first experience of sport was the entirely typical one of being taken to the football (in his case, at Ayresome Park) by his Dad, Barnes seems to have discovered sport by himself, and comparatively late in life. He is not, even subconsciously, worried about what his mates at the football will think, because he never had any. And this, I think, takes us back from the particular to the typical, and my putative Barnes-Gray Scale.
Barnes, as I have suggested, is interested in sport in the abstract, and in, as well as professionally obliged to write about, all sports (if I wanted to risk a trip to Pseuds’ Corner myself, I might suggest he sees particular sports as the phenomenal manifestation of the noumenal essence of sport itself). This does not mean that he likes them all equally (he thinks golf is “silly” and hates boxing). At one point he lists the fifty greatest sporting events of his life : eight are from football, six athletics, five cricket, four from rugby, horseracing and tennis ; there are also entries from basketball, American football, equestrianism, sailing and boxing. What he dislikes is what he terms the “monoculture” of English sport, the “notion that only football matters”. It is possible that Gray is interested in sports other than football, but there is only a passing mention of them in his book ; I am sure he does not believe, as Barnes alleges, that “to admit to a liking for any sport other than football is a confession that you are homosexual”, but I doubt he thinks of any as more than a temporary diversion from the main event.
Other sports do intrude rudely, once, into Gray’s monocultural world in the shape of the 2012 London Olympics. For Barnes, the Olympics represent the apex of sport, the essence of sport, because it is, variously, “a feast of really big fuckers” (an allusion to Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney), because it attracts “10,000 journalists … 10,000 artists, all trying to grapple with beauty and immensity”, because it is “the greatest of all sporting events” and so on (his veneration for the Olympics is one of the leitmotifs that weave in and out of his narrative).
For Gray, “watching handball at midnight suddenly seemed like a rational activity. In itself, that was fine. Delightful, in fact. Then they went for our sport.” He quotes Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing of football as a sport “which sometimes looks like a game owned by crooks and despots and played by racists and rapists” and responds that Wheatcroft is “writing of top-end Premier League, of multi-millionaire players. That is not my game … It is not the football that unites post-industrial towns when so much else is lost to them … Neither is it the football that acts as a social lubricant when I am at a wedding or in the workplace … Rowing and equestrian, incidentally, are none of these things. Yes, I can do class prejudice too.” (Given that “rowing and equestrian” are two of Barnes’ favourites, this might be a rare example of their two worlds colliding.)
The Olympics are only the biggest of the “really big fuckers” that Barnes writes about : in the space of two years he does not seem to have watched any sport below the level of one of the bigger Premier League games. Gray, on the other hand, spurns the one opportunity he has to watch a top-level game : when his schedule should have taken him to Liverpool, he decides, instead, to visit (of all places) Newquay (“ending with a Premier League game would be like finishing a happy, wholesome, happy marriage with a cocaine-fulled orgy”). Whereas Barnes is, in the most benign sense of that vexed term, an elitist, Gray is not only indifferent to elite sport, but actively hostile to it.
It is possible that Barnes was only contractually obliged to write about the great events and spent his days off watching Ryman League football, but I doubt whether he would see the point, or be able to find any meaning in it. For him (and this is another leitmotif) sport is about greatness, or, as he puts it (in a passage that teeters on the brink of self-parody):
“It [a tennis match between Sampras and Agassi] was the clearest possible demonstration of the difference between very, very good – and great. And, as I seek constantly a good tale to tell, so I seek – almost for private reasons, for personal rather than public gratification – greatness, I seek an understanding of greatness. I seek, perhaps, the highest thing of all, to write greatness : and write it true. But, above all, I seek to be where greatness is.”
or, again :
“Greatness is a great word in sport, a great concept. In a sense, sport is all about greatness : the search for greatness, the falling short from greatness, the rare, rare achievement of greatness. Greatness is elusive of definition …”
and so on. Whatever Gray is looking for when he travels to Burnley or Crewe, it cannot be greatness ; in fact, he rarely makes any comment on, or even seem to notice, the quality of the game he has come to see.
For Barnes, greatness is an individual quality. When he writes about team games, he boils them down, reduces them to the stories of individuals : “at the heart of the story of the Ashes was the story of Andrew Flintoff : the Man Who Changed” ; Liverpool won the European Cup Final because “One man refused to accept the things that were happening before him. Steven Gerrard didn’t like reality … so he changed it.” When he tries to sum up what sport is all about, discover its quintessence, he gives it the name of an individual (the rower, Steve Redgrave).
“Redgrave is not only a person. Redgrave is a quality. Napoleon would ask of his generals “has he luck?”. I ask of athletes “Has he Redgrave?”.”
Gray has so little interest in individuals that he does not once name the players in the matches he sees (which he could have discovered by buying a programme). I can work out that Sheffield United’s “beanstalk forward” who will “end the season in prison for rape” must be Ched Evans, and can have a stab at one or two others, but otherwise they remain anonymous. It is not, though, that he is interested in the team (as in team-work, team-spirit or tactics) ; he is interested in the club. The team is a particular collection of individuals at a given moment in time ; the club is a collective entity that transcends time (always changing, always mysteriously the same) and (as any football fan will tell you) it is the fans that make the club. A team is a managerial entity ; a club a social one.
Barnes repeatedly, and deliberately, distances himself from any notion of belonging. The first section finds him in a cafe in Portugal, reading Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet”, in the company of “men with very little hair and very considerable bellies. This evening England play Croatia : if they (should I say we? Definitely not) win or draw …”. At Wimbledon, at the height of Henmania, he concedes that “I am no more like these tennis followers than I am like the football people I scowled at in Lisbon”. He explains his dislike of golf by his “media-pinko” parents’ “dislike of suburban values … and clubbability : no. Not my way”. “I wasn’t brought up with the nation of supporting a football club … Perhaps fanship is like acquiring language : it has to be done at a certain, and very young age, or it simply doesn’t happen” ; “Do I sound like an Arsenal supporter here? I am not. I am a supporter, I suppose, not of Juventus, but of juventus …” and, a phrase he repeatedly employs, “My patriotism for the nation of excellence …”.
If Barnes is, in his own eyes, the cat who walks alone (all teams are alike to him), for Gray the search for a sense of belonging is the whole point of football, the whole meaning of sport. In his conclusion, he writes :
“Away from the jaded cynicism of its highest reaches it [football] remains a social movement I am honoured to be part of. Down in the provinces, it is affordable and accessible. Contrary to my fears, young people are still catching the bug. No computer game can beat the thrill of … being an active part in a bustling community of interest … in an England of flux, where no job is certain, families break up or live far apart, community or church is loose or weak, football is more important than ever. It breeds belonging in an uncertain world.”
What is striking is how mutually exclusive their two worlds seem. Barnes spends 365 pages looking for the meaning of sport, and never thinks of looking where Gray finds it, either physically (in Crewe) or mentally. Sport, in all its 158 Barnesian aspects, scarcely seems to exist for Gray, except as a pretext for something else. Although Barnes nods to the contemporary pieties about race and gender, he is essentially apolitical : Gray is political in the both the obvious sense (he is an ex-member of the SWP, he is angry about Hillsborough and Thatcher, he writes about the Chartists and the post-war Luton riots) and the more radical sense that he discovers the meaning of football in the civic, the social, a matter of the polity.
You might, I suppose, extrapolate from this a divided nation, and there is certainly an aspect to their differences which is to do with regionality and class. Barnes (a middle class product of the South London suburbs) is an authentic example of a minority who are genuinely globalised, individualistic, floating free from inherited attachments and historic resentments : Gray, self-consciously working class and Northern (his family “miners turned bus drivers” from Teeside via Yorkshire), sees football as a way to cling to them.
But that, I suspect, is a rather weak correlation (there must be many working-class Barnses and middle-class Grays), and most of us are neither purely Barnes nor Gray, but somewhere on a scale between the two. Surprisingly, perhaps, I would place myself somewhere nearer Gray’s end (I am mostly indifferent to sports other than cricket, football and rugby, often irritated by the Olympics, not overly preoccupied by greatness (which is just as well, given the teams I support), more attached to clubs than individuals, and am less interested in sport for sport’s sake than as a pretext for other things (though those other things are not quite the same as Gray’s). I do, though, exhibit more of (to use his formulation) the quality of Barnes when it comes to cricket, the sport I know and care about the most.
If you have a moment, you might find it amusing to try to place yourself somewhere along my scale.