Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football picks his favourite reads for the new sporting year
Football’s European Championships featuring England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic, plus the Rio OIympics, will undoubtedly dominate the 2016 sporting summer, while cycling’s World Track Cycling Championships coming to London in March will be a domestic highlight. But then every year has its customary roster of the Six Nations, Wimbledon fortnight, Le Tour, Formula One’s Grand Prix circuit and the weekly soap opera that modern football has increasingly become. Love it, like it, loathe it, ignore it or hate it, sport is inescapable. Its enduring appeal for the enthusiasts is located in the unpredicatability of outcomes, and long may that remain so in 2016.
How to explain the social and cultural emergence of spectator sport as the pre-eminent global community it has become? The best single volume chronicle of its pre-eminence is provided by Rob Steen’s quite extraordinary Floodlights and Touchlines reissued in 2015 as a handy paperback edition.
The Heyday of the Football Annual compiled and written by Ian Preece and Doug Cheeseman takes the reader back to an age when football wasn’t all things to all men (and some women) and more like simply a sport. The mix of illustrations and text capture wonderfully the process of change, mostly for the worst, in England home of the Premier League monster, at least. For the superlatives in modern football we have to look to Germany. World Champions, cheap match tickets, no foreign-owned clubs, safe standing and drinking while you watch a game, what’s not to like? Das Reboot is Raphael Honigstein’s highly readable account of the national team’s recovery from the relative lows of early exits at World Cup ’98, Euro 2000 and Euro 2004 to the World Champions of now.
Few other sports can match cricket for the quality of writing it has inspired. There is something about a five-day test, complete with lengthy breaks for lunch and tea, the crucial role of the toss of a coin to choose who bats or bowls first, and of course the ever-present threat or saving grace of ‘rain stopped play’ that creates a sporting drama, and literature, quite unlike any other. Charlie Connelly’s fictionalised account Gilbert: The Last Years of W.G Grace is a splendid addition to the genre as he tells his own imaginary story of WG’s twilight innings. Witty, appreciative of the sport’s history, and highly original.
2012’s ‘Wiggomania’ was British cycling’s breakthrough moment and it has hardly looked back since. Bradley Wiggins is not only an incredibly gifted cyclist but also steeped in the traditions of cycling. His 2015 hour record as recorded in his new book My Hour was thus not only a world record but a tribute to all those who had gone before him to beat the clock. This beautifully produced book records in words and pictures the significance of both those ambitions.
Of course neither Wiggins nor ‘the hour’ came out of nowhere, a much needed semi-social history of British cycling has finally been written and very good it is too. Kings of the Road by Robert Dineen records the sport’s early beginnings, the characters and events which framed its growth and the most recent period of sparkling success and popularity.
The recent Tyson Fury furore (sic) has reignited debates around the brutalised version of masculinity that boxing invariably frames. Though when this becomes immersed in the hapless non-entity of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award the issue becomes merely trivialised. Where does it say in the programme notes that the nomination is for only the ‘good’ personality? Donald McCrae has produced perhaps the finest retort to the acres of useless newsprint commentary on the subject with his new book A Man’s World, telling the otherwise untold story of Emile Griffith, black World Welterweight boxing champion and gay man.
There was a period when the World Heavyweight boxing champion – Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Tyson – were indisputably the most famous sports stars on the planet. Nowadays sporting culture is more diverse, fragmented and niched so it isn’t so easy to nominate who would in 2016 claim that mantle. The strongest contender however would surely be Usain Bolt. Richard Moore has written a string of superbly revelatory sports books, his latest The Bolt Supremacy investigates not only Bolt’s rise to become the world’s most famous sportsman but also the athletic culture of Jamaica that produced him. A superb read ahead of Rio 2016.
But the core appeal of sport is that it is, in principle at least, for everyone, not just the Gold Medal Winners and World Record-breakers. We can all take part. What we are embarking on when we cross that line from inactivity to activity is to engage with some kind of testing of our potential for endurance, strength or speed. Few however will ever reach the heights of ultra-runner Lizzy Hawker. Yet as she recalls in her book Runner there is an unbroken connection of experience and ambition between the novice jogger taking their first tentative steps on a New Year resolution run to get fit and her superlative achievement of running up and down mountains for 24-hours at a stretch.
Which is how I ended up with my pick of the sports books to read in 2016. Hugh Hornby’s Bowled Over. The latest in the incredibly ambitious ‘Played in Britain’ publishing series, author Hugh Hornby explores a sport little known outside of its coterie of enthusiasts, bowling, yet absolutely woven into the fabric of English life. The history and changing culture of that connection tells us so much about both the intrinsic value of sport and the making of Englishness. A sport that barely features on the back pages but with roots that rival, if not exceed, the money-fuelled TV extravaganza of football, rugby, cricket, formula one that fill the TV sporting schedules. Never mind the hype of the Premier League, Rio, Wimbledon and so one, Bowled Over is my number one book to help us understand the true meaning of sport in 2016.
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Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.