Literary sport

I was barely ten years of age when I first turned from Coral and Treasure Islands of the literary variety to the muddier, often bloodier fields of sporting endeavour related by my boyhood hero (Welsh soccer international) Trevor Ford in his autobiography I Lead the Attack, and the stirring lives of the saints, aka Great Rugger Players, depicted by the Western Mail's J.B.G. Thomas. It was only later that a more historically informed perspective enabled me to recognise that sport has been an integral constituent in the making of modern Wales. With it – I’m fairly sure it preceded it – came the realisation that the writing on it has been vivid and resonant. So I have long felt that a literary anthology of the best writing on Welsh sport, where the emphasis would be on the quality of the writing rather than the frequency of journalistic clich√©, would itself be a contribution to the narrative of Welsh social history. When the opportunity came to prepare such a volume for the new Library of Wales, I leapt at the chance, and that is what has preoccupied me for the last twelve months.

I have been trawling my net widely, from early accounts of the Welsh variants of pre-industrial ball-games known as 'cnappan’ and 'bando’, to moments when there has been a Cymric equivalent of Newbolt’s 'there’s a deathly hush in the Close tonight.’ But in truth my model has been less Eng Lit notions of the conventional anthology than the annual series of The Best American Sports Writing. Americans have the inestimable advantage of an apparently infinite diversity of dedicated but literate sports magazines and even those with serious ambitions and readers have always taken sports writing equally seriously. A complex of social, cultural and historical factors means that our leading Welsh writers have never enthusiastically managed to embrace sport as a part of their creative landscape (Pontypridd’s incomparable Alun Richards is a notable exception) in the way that giants like Roth, Malamud and De Lillo have done, but the more digging I have done I have discovered that in truth the likes of Gwyn Jones, Emyr Humphreys, Ron Berry and Dannie Abse have not been far behind.

I’m not looking for the big games, though some of these will feature – perhaps with an unfamiliar twist like the New Zealander Lloyd Jones’ rich prose-poem on the 1905 All Blacks’ tour. I am more interested in a revelatory piece of dialogue, like a crucial line from a film or a book, a scene or an insight that gives both writer and reader a better understanding for the subject. Like the celebrated exchange between Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe in Gay Talese’s piece for Esquire where Marilyn, just back from entertaining the troops in Korea, tells her husband 'Joe, you never heard such cheering’ and DiMaggio replies, 'Yes, I have.’ Reading Talese’s piece now is as exciting as it was the first time I came across it. The best literature, like the best history writing, always stands up that way. I’m hoping to show there are equivalents in writing about Welsh sport. I think Hugh McIlvanney does it in talking to and about Merthyr’s boxing fraternity; so does John Morgan in pursuing his belief that Welsh rugby is a metaphor for the national condition.

Working on this anthology has confirmed my long-held impression that sports writing brings out the very best in talented writers whether they are professional sportswriters or not. And it sometimes raises ticklish moral issues. Even with celebrated American precedents in mind, from Jack London and Ring Lardner, via Hemingway and Nelson Algren, to Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates, a poet like Merthyr’s Leslie Norris, a novelist like Alexander Cordell, and a journalist like McIlvanney set the literary bar so high in writing about Welsh boxers that I almost felt the quality of the writing justified the brutality of the sport.

It has also entailed making sometimes serendipitous discoveries. I was delighted to be directed by the Library of Wales series editor Dai Smith, working on his biography of Raymond Williams, to explore the possibilities of what proved to be a gem of an unpublished short story by our foremost cultural critic. I was gratified too to discover that two of the University of Glamorgan’s own poets, Sheenagh Pugh and Tony Curtis, have penned wry poems on snooker and golf, an activity on which Wales’ first National Poet Gwyneth Lewis has also written. For I certainly intend thinking outside the (masculine) penalty box of rugby, soccer and pugilism to include racing of the human, two-wheeled, four-legged and feathery kind. Doesn’t Idris Davies, the poet of Rhymney and the Depression, urge Dai to 'send out his homing pigeons’?

In sum, the best sports writing is sometimes just good writing that happens to be about sport. Researching possible inclusions for this anthology has forced me back to reading long forgotten prose and poetry, even pieces in unlikely sources like the Welsh History Review, and for that I am grateful. I hope readers will be too when Sport: A Literary Anthology is published by Parthian Press later this year, to coincide nicely with my new level 2 module, Wales: Sport, Culture and Identity 1700-2000.

Gareth Williams