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December 04, 2006

What (on earth) are "Sportswriters" for? Or, how I discovered that Simon Barnes is a plonker: The Meaning of Sport - Simon Barnes

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Meaning of Sport
by Simon Barnes
Pp. 363. London: Short Books, 2006
Hardback, 16.99

Sports enthusiast Lincoln Allison - the author of the seminal Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence - looked forward to reading The Meaning of Sport by The Times's chief sportswriter Simon Barnes. But instead of enjoying the book, Lincoln Allison found passages closer to pure drivel than anything he had read for many a long year and discovered that Mr Barnes is a plonker.

A few hours after receiving this book to review I was at a social event, the re-opening of a pub, talking to an attractive, well-heeled lady of a certain age.

"Do you read The Times?", I asked.

"Yes", she replied.

"I'm reviewing a book by Simon Barnes."

"Superb writer", she commented.

Next day, at lunch, another attractive, well-heeled lady (I'm lucky that way): same first three lines of conversation, but this time it ends with "What a plonker!" with the emphasis on all four syllables.

My initial prejudices were entirely on the positive side. Whenever I've picked up The Times, for which Barnes is "chief sportswriter", I thought that he had more interesting things to say than most people who write about sport and I often found that I agreed with him. It helps that I share his two principal interests - sport and the natural environment. Yet before I'd read a hundred pages I had moved firmly into the plonker camp and was feeling a degree of hostile scorn which was worrying me and which I must try and analyse later.

So what is wrong with this book? Well, it's extremely incoherent and very poorly structured, for a start: its 158 chapters (or sections or whatever) are sometimes narrative, sometimes reflective, sometimes polemical, all arranged rather randomly and whimsically, depending how Simon feels. There are several potentially decent books in there, not least the diary of a man who sees Liverpool's dramatic win in the European Cup and England's victory in the Ashes and is asked to write about London's award of the 2012 Olympics, George Best's death, etc. I would quite like to have read that book and I did find his accounts of reporting conditions and difficulties interesting. I'm not the least bit jealous and would regard having to write something every time I attended a sporting event as life-ruining.

The second component is his musings on the meaning/nature/value of sport. I wouldn't like to read that one, because I think his thoughts on the subject are poorly constructed and often ill-informed. Barnes positively embraces contradiction, like some punk declaiming that he don't need no education. Here he is talking about an England football match (pp. 236-7):

To tell the tale, yes, of course to tell the tale, a victory would be far, far greater than a tale of defeat. But most of all, I wanted England to win because that would mean they had won. Walt Whitman again:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

We are all large: and perhaps there is something life denying about consistency, about forcing everything into a coherent body of thought. In saying so, of course, I subvert the very foundation of this book. But this book is also at least fairlylarge. It was written by a human, and it represents the thoughts of a human in all his mental chaos and contradiction.

This is already his third use of the hackneyed Whitman quotation - and it's not the last. And it begs the question of why anybody would be interested in such incoherent thoughts. The underlying message is "Hi, I'm Simon. I'm pretentious, ignorant and intellectually lazy, but just being Simon transcends all that". Perhaps it's being regarded as a Superb Writer which makes one such a Plonker?

It gets worse: the third largest component is Simon on Simon, the endless cul-de-sacs of Simon Says. Sometimes he offers us a chapter (or whatever) of four lines, like a Wittgensteinian thought - except that Wittgenstein probably never had a thought in his life as banal as these. And sometimes it's just stream-of-consciousness stuff. Here he is watching a waitress in an Athenian restaurant during the 2004 Olympics (pp. 57-58):

She was James Joyce's bird girl, the long-legged wading beauty that Stephen Dedalus [sic, but Joyce spells it both ways - LA] saw as he walked along the beach, seeing his own future as an artist: "When she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness . . . - Heavenly God, cried Stephen's soul, in an outpouring of profane joy." And like Stephen, I was touched to my soul by this piercing vision of perfect loveliness.

There was no need, and for that matter, no inclination to do anything about this: to try a chat-up, make a pass, all the routine of seduction. It was nothing to do with her: it was all to do with me. It was a revelation of beauty: and I, to whom it had been revealed, found in it great joy and wondered very deeply what it meant.

I am still wondering. But I think it meant that sport and sporting journalism did not really matter. They only seem to do so when you are tightrope-writing your way to a humorously close deadline. Neither sport nor newspapers matter much compared to beauty. A man looks on a beautiful woman. That matters. Sport is only about life. Beauty is life.
So, it had nothing to do with Mrs Barnes or the possibilities of divorce, alimony and losing the five horses? Frankly, I think this passage is closer to being pure drivel than anything I have read for many a long year. It has the peculiar flavour of sportswritery drivel - self deprecating, pretentious and with unnecessary literary references. And the suspicion (it can be no more) that it's not quite honest. It breaks all the (Orwellian) rules of good writing, starting with the one about having something to say before you bother.

Thus - a highly successful journalist writes a crap book (in my opinion). He might have written a fairly good book had some editorial discipline been applied. So what? We are now up to six figures in books published per year and most of them would probably be crap in my opinion if I had an opinion. But they don't matter: no harm is done, is it? Nothing to get cross about? Actually, I think it is more serious than that, but I cannot explain my more profound objections without something of a personal credo.

I regard myself as a sportsman. By this I mean that an important, essential part of my life is a kind of competitive engagement - with nature, with my Lower Self and with other people. This engagement should be as complex and diverse as possible. In my case its prime form is participation in a variety of organised games, but any physical challenge will do and gambling and partisan support are a lot better than nothing. Sport could never be the main thing in life - its whole essence and purpose is to offset the main things, though its existence transcends them. Nevertheless, most of the best friends, the best moments and the best laughs in my life have come through sport and I am properly grateful.

I am only talking about some sports; most leave me with Johnsonian coldness - a curiosity about why they are done at all and no interest in whether they are done well. But live and let live. My view of elite and professional sport - other than in cases where I have become a partisan and feel part of the narrative - is that it has a very minor role. I watch it when there's nothing else to do, it's a useful lowest common denominator in conversation, etc. I find it interesting how good Roger Federer is at tennis, but "excellence" does not excite me per se. It is actually imperceptible in many cases: you just can't see how fast a runner runs, a swimmer swims, etc. Insofar as contemporary elite sport is about character, it is mainly about bad character - narrow, dim, fanatical, dishonest people. What I like about sport is the narrative, the humour, the clubbability - and the good guys.

The sportswriter is the exact opposite of the sportsman. He has a trade union solidarity that all sport is good and that being good at it justifies pretty well anything. He condones the state view that sport is a "pyramid" which exists to serve its apex. Barnes constantly talks about his patriotic feelings towards "the nation of excellence"; he is always on the lookout for "greatness", a quality he attributes almost definitively to the rower Sir Steven Redgrave. There is something very Soviet about contemporary sportswriting: it wants Performance, however absurd the activity, and it wants show trials of those who do not perform. It never, ever challenges the assumptions or questions the meaning of established sport - in that respect it lacks the critical and analytic dimensions which most other forms of writing possess. There is no proper debate about the nature and value of sport as there is with art or religion.

Nothing divides the sportsman from the sportswriter like the Olympic Games. I regard them as a kind of festival of de-humanisation. Many of the activities for which you win a medal have none of the virtues of sport; they take people's childhoods away and, instead of getting them to play lots of things, gets them to perform some simple task which could be done better by an animal or a machine. Everybody should run the 100 metres; nobody should do it for a living. (Just like sex, really!) If you want to be good at most Olympic sport you should:
a). live under a totalitarian regime
b). subject yourself to bullying
c). give up all sports other than the targeted one
d). take lots of drugs
e). & forget the meaning of the word "fun".

Barnes loves the Olympics. He even likes that combination of pointlessness and child abuse known as gymnastics which was stuck in the Olympics to appease Teutonic body-fanaticism and its objections to the vulgarity of English organised games. (Not that he seems to know anything about its political history).

I recently came across a passage written about a hundred years ago by Sir Flinders Petrie, the Egyptologist who was also a bit of a pundit. He said that, up to a point, he approved of the modern cult of organised games. But that point was reached when they were no longer mainly about participation. That grown men were earning a living by writing about sporting contests and equally grown men were wasting their time reading the stuff was a sure sign of decadence. I think I now agree with him, albeit reluctantly. I no longer swallow the convenient state myth, swallowed whole (like most myths) by sportswriters, that the increasingly immoral world of elite professional sport relates symbiotically to the sport I love, that it provides "role models" and stimulates healthy imitation. It doesn't and its got beyond the point that we should want it to.

I suppose my anger (which slightly surprises me) is like that of a religious zealot. For me the True Faith has been utterly corrupted and my greatest venom is reserved for the parasitic priests who have condoned the corruption. If I didn't care about sport a book like this would have no power to arouse my contempt.

I had thought (hoped?) that Barnes was different, perhaps because he seems to dislike and is disliked by many other sportswriters, but he is 90% the same as the rest of the shower. Admittedly, he does break the "all sport is good" solidarity to the degree of wanting to ban boxing and stating an indifference to golf, but that's about it. He even manages to maintain the sportswriters' inferiority complex, devoting chapter (or whatever) 16 to complaining that the English regard sportswriters as stupid, which they ought not to do. (Whereas I think that we have an excessive deference to sportswriters and we ought to regard them as stupid because they know less about their chosen subject than other writers and offer less criticism and analysis of it.)

However, they may be doomed in a generation. It is already the case that there is far better writing about sport on the web than in the newspapers. During the writing of this review I read the Daily Telegraph report of a football match I was interested in (Burnley-Leeds since you ask) which was badly written and uninformative. I was then sent an excellent account written by a friend. This is a field in which amateurs do it better than professionals.

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. He is the author of Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence (Frank Cass, 2001).


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Barnes writes pretentious drivel at every turn. You should read his August 2006 feature comparing the emergence of Andy Murray with falling in love. Try not to heave.

Posted by: Bill at September 12, 2007 03:48 PM
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