I’ve read well this summer and have sucked the marrow from a wide range of tomes from contemporary fodder to famed humorous charmer to gritty detective, er, grit to evergreen children’s classic. I should mention, in more detail, a brace of sporting volumes that have brought particular pleasure.
Norman Mailer’s The Fight is ostensibly an account of the Zaire-hosted 1974 Muhammad Ali - George Foreman heavyweight boxing contest but proffers the reader so much more. The book is split into two parts. The Dead Are Dying Of Thirst examines the build-up to the bout, the training, the sparring, the political machinations of the media and, most interesting of all, the social structure of a newish nation; N’Golo is a touch shorter but utterly compelling and comprises an almost blow-by-blow account of the so-called Rumble in the Jungle (an expression Mailer uses once or twice only). Utilising unprecedented access to both pugilists, the writer paints such persuasive portraits of the egotistic yet complex Ali and the more sensitive and brooding Foreman that when the two clash under the Kinshasa stars one is able to consider a confrontation between two fascinating, well, humans as well as two primed athletes. The Fight is first rate journalism, unusually phrased at times (Mailer often refers to himself in the third person) and is splendidly informative as well as exquisitely thrilling (despite one knowing the result) during the rounds of the fight itself. Recommended.
Mike Burton’s Never Stay Down is possibly my favourite sports book ever and a must for any supporter of the famed Gloucester rugby side. I confess the sentimentalist in me is blinking away the tears from the first page where gnarled Kingsholm legend Digger Morris towers over the teenaged Burton, crocked and supine, during a physical junior fixture and offers the uncompromising advice that lends the book its title and underpins the hero’s at times controversial approach to the sport. I am with my fabled comrade D, the pride o’ Newent, in holding great affection for the chapter entitled We The Undersigned; The Gloucester Story which offers an bewitching insight into the club’s amateur era of the 1960s and 1970s when just pulling on the cherry and white shirt meant the world to its players and the only tangible rewards were the support of a proud city and the comradeship of true friends. Elsewhere Burton earnestly contemplates his careers with England and the Lions and considers, ruefully at times, his abrasive and notorious style of play. Burton never took a backwards step, never avoided confrontation, never – after the Digger’s rugged intervention - stayed down. The chapters bearing the titles Off! Off! and Props and Punchers are each split into parts one and two such is the wealth of fisticuff-based anecdotal splendour the author (aided and abetted by the peerless Stephen Jones) provides for the grateful reader. I just missed seeing Burton play (he retired in the spring of 1978, a matter of months before I entered the glorious stadium for the first time) but, in a way, Never Stay Down represents my truest feelings for the club that I admire for its recent ability to flourish in a commercial and professional era but love for the old-fashioned, raw, hard-nosed ethos that existed before anyone standing in the popular side had heard of salary caps or experimental law variations. This is a superb book.