Fascinating look at a sportswriter’s life
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’