Robert Hull, a keen sportsman himself, casts a wary eye over the current crop of sports writing for children in verse, stories and information books.
‘Today I forgot to unload the airgun before I carried it into the house, and Jack left the shed gate open, so that the cows got into the vegetables and ate all my mother’s cabbages and lettuce, and then made steaming heaps in the kitchen yard. This meant cleaning up the heaps, and then two hours of tennis straight after lunch when it was boiling hot.’
This sharply actual diary entry is a moment in the tennis-player Gordon Forbes’ classic autobiography. Tennis as punishment – and on to Wimbledon. It shouldn’t make sense, but it does.
That uninventable image came to mind reading amongst the sports literature currently available for children. Such narrative concreteness, though it exists in the better fiction, seems mostly to be edited out of the sporting worlds that children inhabit in their reading. The sports book for children all too frequently offers a thinned version of the reality of the games and sport they encounter. This version does not include the stabbed tennis stars, eye-gouging in the scrum, the horror on the face of the child surrounded by the mayhem at the abandoned England-Republic of Ireland football match last year in Dublin. Are too many writers of fiction unfamiliar with their worlds, or ill at ease on the field? Don’t they want children to encounter the real world?
Some writers, fortunately, do turn their gaze towards reality. Jacqueline Wilson’s novel, Deep Blue (Oxford, 0 19 271711 1, £9.99), about a teenager’s ambition to dive for Britain in the Olympics, is a serious look at one fundamental unpleasantness – manipulative pressure. The book recognises a truth not scented in the cheerier fictions, namely that sport is a classic context for adult exploitation of young ambitions and desires, and that the perversion of play into militarised medal-mania is usually accomplished through parents, coaches and teachers.
The ruin being visited on the growing girl’s sensibility is well caught; Barbara could be an East German athlete under Honecker. Though Dad’s iron-spirited blindness and creepy solicitousness – he even sends her Valentines – are rather over-played, the story is a serious look at relationships as they shift and buckle under pressure, and then survive.
But encounters with actuality are not, it seems, the stuff of most fiction. Michael Hardcastle’s Advantage, Miss Jackson (Mammoth, 0 7497 1022 5, £2.99) clearly aims at something less problematically concrete. It is about becoming ‘a champion’, and the story’s particulars are organised round that firmly presented fantasy. Much of the story is running commentary on actual games: ‘Slow it down, slow it down, Catrina told herself as she stood up and folded her towel with exaggerated care.’ (Curious to note a high tolerance of juvenile gamesmanship in several writers.)
Earnest fantasy matches similarly take up much of Rob Child’s stories. In The Big Hit (Corgi, 0 552 52662 2, £2.25), moreover, as in other ‘The Big…’ books in a ‘By Myself’ series, he aims at ‘beginner readers’. The claim is puzzling; here is a sentence more or less at random: ‘Andrew watched as the worried batsman hesitated slightly before playing at the final ball, waiting to see which way it would move, but the split-second delay proved fatal.’ The inspiration is journalistic cliché: ‘Rakesh kept his nerve and coolly slid the ball past him into the unguarded net.’
Perhaps what drives the publication and purchase of much sports fiction of that kind – which is incidentally overwhelmingly about football – is the sense that ‘at least they’re reading something’. Fine, as far as it goes; we have all felt that particular sense of relief. But the highly formulaic, cliché-bound tales that dominate games literature are in no interesting sense literary. Not only do they confront nothing, but in describing children’s games in (unwitting?) parodies of the kind of journalism that itself sounds like parody, they perform a kind of double occlusion of child reality. The child’s own world fades. Success shrinks to triumph; other human successes – participation, physical self-expression, pleasure in others’ skills – go unacknowledged.
Does it matter? Perhaps only to the extent that fiction matters. But fiction can offer children a sporting world that’s not quasi-religious and cemented by vows of self-absorption. It can give them back their own playing, playful selves.
As Hannah Cole’s Kick-Off (Walker, 0 7445 1749 4, £2.99) does. Here children inhabit their own wider, more amusing world, and perceive it alertly. Thus, Mr Crendon gives the team some advice about passing: ‘Paula thought it was good advice, but not the sort of advice that Mr Crendon would take himself.’
Good Sports (Doubleday, 0 385 402325, £8.99; Corgi, 0 552 542962, £2.99), a book of sports stories collected by Tony Bradman, also steps out from the claustrophobic confines of the point-by-point changing room account of how I won, lost, threw it away, clawed my way back, achieved my ambition, proved myself to the selectors, and so on. In Michelle Magorian’s ‘Dan’, as in most stories in the collection, the world of games is woven with concerns deriving from the larger social world. Dan’s introduction to trampolining – described with a felt physical immediacy that isn’t over-narrated – is part of a nicely shaped tale about coping with divorced parents and their conflicts: Rugby League versus Yoga. Dialogue is taught, detail agreeably telling, as when a girl trampolinist’s long hair is tied back with the lace of a trainer. The story has humour and wit. At the end Dan, sat with dad and dad’s friend Trev, ‘drew up his legs and watched Rugby League in the lotus position’.
Since sport tends towards solemnity, there’s a good deal of pleasure to be had from books that are subversive – of gravitas not games themselves. Michael Rosen and the illustrator John Rogan have executed some neat one-twos in Even Stevens F.C. (A & C Black, 0 7136 4187 8, £6.50;
Collins, 0 00 675084 2, £3.99 pbk), assisted by Eddie Rosen – technical advice? I don’t normally read the team notes before a game, but here I’d make an exception: ‘Rodney Travis: 38, Wayne’s dad. Bad back, bad right knee, bad shoulder. Part-time postman.’ The dialogue is tough and realistic: ‘That fractured eye-lash was a set-up.’ A wikkid book.
Sport seems not well served by poetry. Neither of the two small collections of football poems from Macmillan, edited by David Orme, ‘Ere We Go (0 330 32986 3, £2.99) and You’ll Never Walk Alone (0 330 33787 4, £2.99), has more than a subs-bench number of real poems. Pam Gidney’s genuinely witty ‘A Perfect Match’ is one of them:
‘We sat down on a Meadowbank
And of my love I spoke.
Queen of the South, I said to her,
My fires of love you Stoke.’
But in most of both books there’s a fatal sense of fandom feigned.
Due for publication in May this year, Over the Moon (Hutchinson, 0 09 176597 8, £9.99), a football compilation in the It’s-not-the-words-but-who-writes-them-that-counts mode (see Budgie the Helicopter), celebrates the truth that children want to read non-poems by Jimmy Hill, Rob Jones, Paul Gascoigne, and even – I like this bit – Peter Osgood ‘with his agent’. Is it what the National Curriculum means by ‘poems from a range of cultures’? A red card for this wild lunge, possibly a charge of bringing the genre into disrepute.
Worth noting, too, is the fact that sports fiction and poetry seem in general not truly to reflect this ‘range of cultures’. I couldn’t find a cricket story set in the West Indies, India or Pakistan, or any acknowledgement that in Africa or India or China youngsters have games to play. No stories or poems about North American Indian youngsters canoeing, running, climbing, riding.
This broader world is left for non-fiction to try to acknowledge. It seems to do so very fitfully, but one fine book that makes the attempt is Peter Hick’s Sports and Entertainment (Wayland, 0 7502 1273 X, £9.99), from a series about legacies of the ancient world. Handsome and well-written, it informatively compares past and present, with telling juxtapositions of image: for instance, a Minoan boxer and bull-leaper with contemporary equivalents.
Much sports non-fiction goes in a different direction, towards useful, if bland instruction. A & C Black’s well illustrated ‘Know The Game’ series seems ideal for coaching and checking rules. Will children read them? Probably, but only to find out something quite particular.
More lavish is The Young Athlete (Dorling Kindersley, 0 7513 5370 1, £8.99), which seems to be by Colin Jackson, who ‘explores basic athletic techniques’. The photographs are nearly all of children, and the training instructions are clearly laid out and unfussy. Jackson’s relation to the book looks ambiguous. Is the writer the writer? And his – or ‘his’ – text resembles much DK text, wholly unambitious and a plod to read. Other books in the series are by – or ‘by’ -the articulate Gary Lineker and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. With such books why not either take on a writer or make clear where the text comes from?
It’s good to see humour beginning to trespass on the hallowed tediums of non-fiction. Michael Wale’s No Sweat! A Guide to 50 TV Sports (Macmillan, 0 330 34281 9, £3.99) has some nice anecdotes: for instance, an ice-hockey match cancelled because the car-park was dangerously icy.
True Sport Stories by Tim Lardner (Scholastic, 0 590 55792 0, £2.99), works from the welcome notion that non-fiction can mean stories. It has some uselessly agreeable – i.e. essential – nuggets of information. For instance, in the annual Marathon des Sables ‘Competitors risk… heat exhaustion, dehydration, and exposure to sandstorms’; Molesworth would recognise the last item.
In Robert Crowther’s Pop-Up Olympics (Walker, 0 7445 3734 7, £12.99) there’s an actual medal for the first to finish. This is an all-action book to pull on and lever about; canoes glide, hammer-throwers whirl, bikes overtake. Nice, funny facts pop up. A judge once gave 13.2 out of 10 to a gymnast; in 1896 a competitor who crashed his bike borrowed one from a spectator, set off again, and won. In those days in the Olympics fun won. 13.2 out of 10 to this one.
It’s also refreshing to find good books about sport as science. Ian Graham’s Science Spotlight – Sport (Evans, 0 237 51433 8, £9.99) has good, clear text, though the illustrations don’t always make the best of the opportunities that sets up. The curl of a free kick in football is shown with the ball in one place; the swerve itself isn’t illustrated. Close by, though, is a very informative diagram of the relation of spin to air-pressure during the flight in a tennis ball.
It would be nice to move on to biographies and autobiographies, if there were any. They seem not to exist (though Penguin Puffin will be publishing one by Linford Christie in June). Nor do documentary or fictive accounts of clubs, leagues or codes. In times of enormous change and upheaval, what’s more, the shift to professionalism in rugby, the loss of major televised events to satellite channels, and so on is ignored. In the three poetry books no poem celebrates an individual sportsman or woman.
In fact, the most striking feature about the range of sports books I’ve seen is their curious non-contemporaneity. In Britain, there must be thousands of youngsters with nowhere to play and nothing to play with, and thousands more directly affected by the collapse of a school games culture in the late 80s, or by the sale of a Rugby League team, or by injury caused by technology – rackets with no give for the arm, courts with no give for the joints.
Perhaps the answer is in how sport is defined. Children play games; adults turn them into sport. Administrators organise sports into rotten boroughs and sell them to media emperors to be welded into industrial fiefs. Much publishing seems rather readily to work with, and assume, those industrialised definitions of sport which, scrutinised for more than a moment, are seen to represent the gradual tearing up of the roots of games in leisured play, schools, local cultures. The story of the wresting of games from their owners and inventors – a clearance, no less – as it now goes on apace, would be a tale worth hearing. But for the moment, game, set and culture to Mr Murdoch.
Robert Hull taught for 25 years and is now a freelance writer and lecturer. Also, he’s a former player in the Wimbledon tennis championships and holds a current season ticket for a Premier League football club.