Fas­ci­nat­ing look at a sports­writer’s life

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Simon Barnes Blooms­bury, £16.99 Re­view by Hugh Mac­Don­ald

SIMON BARNES is an ego­tis­ti­cal sport­ing loser who is hard-wired to write state­ments so sweep­ing one can al­most feel the draught as they pass.

He ad­mits all this, of course. He has to be­cause he is a sports­writer and all of the above is in the job de­scrip­tion. I recog­nise th­ese fail­ings, not least be­cause they in­habit the nap­per of the per­son who is re­flected in my shav­ing mir­ror ev­ery morn­ing.

Barnes has cov­ered seven Olympic Games, a cou­ple of decades of Wim­ble­don and more sport­ing events than a satel­lite sta­tion, mostly for The Times. He has been men­tioned in despatches, dec­o­rated by awards and flipped off a cou­ple of books in his idio­syn­cratic style.

Los­ing It can be de­scribed as a meditation on sport, a philo­soph­i­cal trea­tise on never quite achiev­ing or an ex­am­i­na­tion of the meaning of play. Mer­ci­fully, it is more about what Barnes did when grow­ing up. It is the mem­oir of a sport­ing non-great. It is thus self-cen­tred, dom­i­nated by fail­ure and im­bued with opin­ion that is of­ten elo­quent, some­times silly and mostly en­ter­tain­ing. It is, in short, the work of a sports­writer.

It trav­els through table ten­nis, cricket, rugby, foot­ball and horse-rid­ing at a lick that would im­press Usain Bolt. Barnes is driven by a fas­ci­na­tion for sport – both play­ing and think­ing about it – and this is the sort of sword a ha­rassed fenc­ing cor­re­spon­dent would de­scribe as dou­bleedged. Barnes can be pointed, pre­cise yet poignant. His mem­ory of youth­ful pur­suit car­ries echoes that will re­sound with most.

It is a tru­ism of the sport­ing world that all of us have done some­thing great on the field of play: An ex­tra­or­di­nary catch, a su­perb goal, a drive that soared out of sight yet on line. The mem­ory of it lingers and can be ac­cessed by mere men­tion of a game, a park or an op­pos­ing team. For Barnes, there is an ex­tra­or­di­nary save in Hong Kong, a catch as a wicket keeper and the ride on a favourite jumper.

He recre­ates th­ese mo­ments bril­liantly, bring­ing into fo­cus what is now called psy­choki­net­ics, that abil­ity for the mus­cles to re­mem­ber a mo­ment pre­cisely. He is ex­cel­lent, too, at con­jur­ing up scenes and per­son­al­i­ties and em­pha­sis­ing the in­di­vid­ual im­por­tance of sport. He is also very adept at cre­at­ing ar­gu­ment. And this is where one is nipped by that dou­bleedged sword.

Barnes has his opin­ion. He is a sports­writer, af­ter all. But only one sports­writer has un­fail­ing judg­ment, and that, of course, is me. Barnes is un­doubt­edly cor­rect in in­vok­ing Pete Sam­pras when ar­gu­ing that great ath­letes do not over­think the mo­ment. Rafa Nadal sim­ply did not un­der­stand when I once ques­tioned him on his abil­ity to win “big points”, such as 30-40 down or in a tie-break. He just shrugged and said: “I play the point. It is just a point.” Quite.

But there is a row to be had with some of his as­ser­tions. He may be right to say Roger Fed­erer loves “the game for his own sake” but that is not why he plays on. Fed­erer is a win­ner who loves win­ning. Barnes, too, de­scribes the Swiss as “uni­ver­sally loved”. He isn’t. He is re­spected as a great player but there are de­trac­tors in locker room and stand. He must know this.

There is, iron­i­cally, a sub­stan­tial amount of over­think­ing. For ex­am­ple: “Gi­raffes can kill a lion with a sin­gle kick and could break each other’s legs eas­ily enough with a well-di­rected blow, but when they fight they go in for a sort of In­dian wrestling with their necks…. Such dom­i­nance dis­plays are a se­ri­ous form of play. Which is a fair def­i­ni­tion of sport.” No, it isn’t.

This sort of stuff can stretch the pa­tience but Barnes ul­ti­mately tri­umphs be­cause, in the man­ner of an ob­ser­va­tional comic, he can make his ex­pe­ri­ence rel­e­vant, per­haps even im­por­tant to the reader. He also has the won­der­ful abil­ity of the great­est of ath­letes to leave the best to last. Just when one is shud­der­ing at the wind of yet another sweep­ing state­ment, he con­jures up a last-ditch win­ner.

He brings family, sport and love to­gether with an en­vi­able ease, a pre­cise com­bi­na­tion of sen­ti­ment and sig­nif­i­cance to bring a sprawl­ing, af­fect­ing and some­times in­fu­ri­at­ing book to a breath-tak­ing close. He grabs vic­tory from the jaws of what­ever. One would ex­pect no less of a sports­writer.

Roger Fed­erer: Not ‘uni­ver­sally loved’

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