Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Awa Book of New Zealand Sportswriting,
Edited by Harry Ricketts
Awa Press    $40

Reviewed by John McCrystal

For a nation so famously devoted to the playing and appreciation of sport, New Zealand has produced notably few quality sportswriters.
That’s not to say we don’t write about sport: we do. So there must be a difference, then, between ‘sportswriting’ — illuminating writing on the subject — and mere coverage.
Those philistines who regard the desire in adults to play, watch, read, talk and think about sport as a form of arrested development will likely not concede one. Sport, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t matter, and any space in our newspapers, airwaves, or bookshelves devoted to it is wasted.

But Spiro Zavos once described sport as a ‘sublime irrelevance’, and that captures the paradox nicely: on the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter, but on a more human scale it assumes — or can assume — an exalted significance. For sport, in the end, is pure theatre; and like theatre, it can faithfully reflect every aspect of the human condition, including (unlike theatre) the influence of fortune in our lives. The conventional distinction between sports ‘writing’ and sports ‘reportage’ is mindful of this, and reserves its admiration for descriptions of sporting contests that hold this extra dimension in view.
In his own essay, How to Catch a Cricket Match (a lamentable omission in this anthology), poet and sometime fast-medium pace bowler Harry Ricketts observed that the character of a batsman is expressed with high — and often brutal — fidelity in the way he or she bats. Not just their cricketing talent and the time they’ve put in at the nets, mind: their whole pysche. Quite apart from sport as a catharsis, a diversion, a sublimation, an outlet for excess energy, it has an existential value, and that’s it, right there: in the way the educated watcher of cricket can devine the soul of another in the way they swing a piece of willow.
Ricketts uses a wide definition of sportswriting in compiling this collection. Some are hardly ‘sports’ of mass appeal: mountaineering, aviation.
He includes writing around the periphery of sporting activity: the politics of sport (notably relations between New Zealand and South Africa), and even the way sport is written about (Jane Clifton’s nifty little piece on a cartoon character she grew up with, ‘Little Eric’; Warwick Roger’s interview with great rugby writer, Noel Homes; Richard Boock’s meditation on the lingering sexism in New Zealand sport and sport’s coverage). There is fiction (extracts from Greg McGee’s ‘Foreskin’s’ Lament’, A.P. Gaskell’s ‘The Big Game’, Maurice Gee’s ‘Good Money’, Bruce Mason’s ‘End of the Golden Weather’ and more); poetry (Bill Manhire, Ann French, Bub Bridger and, stretching a point, a poem that Ricketts ‘found’ in a list of the injuries sustained by Chris Cairns in the cricketer’s autobiography) and non-fiction. There’s humour (David Hill’s hilarious account of taking up archery, likewise Roger Hall’s description of his ill-starred fishing career), and some sublime passages (John Mulgan’s wonderfully ironic statement of the place rugby held in the lives of pre-war New Zealanders: ‘It wasn’t always the football season in New Zealand. After winter the sun came in.’) Some isn’t even writing at all: the description of Jean Batten’s landing at Auckland after her 1936 flight from England, from the National Radio spoken commentary (containing the iconic remark: ‘There is a wonderful crowd out here and the tension has been absolutely tense…’).

And that brings us to the final point about sportswriting. Whereas there might be a snobbish tendency to regard sportswriting as superior or ‘literary’ prose, many of Ricketts’ selections show that the art frequently lies in letting the events speak for themselves without excessive mediation. Thus, many of the pieces in here that seem to warrant inclusion for the significance of the sporting event they describe rather than for any distinction of the prose warrant inclusion can be thought of as ‘sportswriting’ rather than mere reportage, too. For the dowsers amongst us, it’s sometimes enough that we can relive the moment without writerly pretentions getting in the way.


John McCrystal is a Wellington-based writer and reviewer.

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