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Spectator sport

Spectator Sport: Sporting lives

31 December 2011

11:00 AM

31 December 2011

11:00 AM

Sadly, no blistering new memoir this year from Max Mosley — A Study In Scarlet: the History of the Whip (published by the British Horseracing Authority) — but there have been plenty of wonderful sporting books this year. Too many to list obviously, so I have chosen just four and, in the Leveson spirit of full and frank confession, all written by or about people I know and admire.

Paul Kimmage’s Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson tells the extraordinary story of the England Under-21 tight head prop who broke his neck on the training ground in 2005 when the scrum collapsed on him, leaving him paralysed from the waist down. The narrative is multilayered and complex, using courtroom script devices borrowed from The Shawshank Redemption to explore how Hampson sees — and is seen by — the people around him. It is a profoundly moving story, very sad, very angry and astoundingly uplifting. It is funny, unbearably moving and utterly compelling, and reveals a great deal about the dark arts of the front row forward. ‘Engage’ was the last word Hampson heard before his shocking accident. ‘I’ll be a better person for this,’ he tells his father after the accident. Anyone who reads this book will be too.

The Following Game (Peridot), by Jonathan Smith, is an exquisite volume that defies genre. It is philosophical, beautifully written, funny and wonderfully erudite, as you would expect from a man who has devoted his life to teaching English at Tonbridge school. Smith has always loved cricket, and the book is about poetry and family and cover drives, but above all it is about a father’s love for his son. Smith jr is Ed Smith, the writer and broadcaster (and colleague of mine) who played cricket for Kent, Middlesex and England. In 2006 Jonathan Smith was diagnosed with cancer, and set off for India with Ed, partly to be with his son and partly because he wanted to see cricket played on the subcontinent. The result is hugely affecting, about the pride of seeing your son in the public eye. This is a self-effacing, gentle book, but it packs the emotional force of an M.S. Dhoni batting onslaught.

A very different set of family relationships lies at the heart of Rafa (Sphere), by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin. In the book, Nadal is exceptionally honest about what it is like to have your life taken over by a relentlessly tough family mentor. From quite early on Nadal’s parents gave control of their son’s tennis life to his father’s brother, Uncle Toni, the ever-present figure in the players’ box. Toni is tough, often overbearing, sometimes oppressive, but his nephew has won ten Grand Slams and is one of the finest players ever, a man whose on-court intensity belies his easy charm off it.  

Meanwhile a distinguished entry into the not-uncrowded genre of demented fan memoir, a sort of misery lit with half-time pies, comes from John Crace. Crace is a Spurs fan and his book Vertigo (Constable), is subtitled One Football Fan’s Fear of Success. David Baddiel describes it as a ‘funny and moving account which truly describes the horror of being a Tottenham fan’. Baddiel is of course a Chelsea fan, so you suspect he can only guess at the full scale of the horror. For Spurs fans like Crace, this season has been bizarre: from business as normal — heavy defeats to both Manchester teams leaving them bottom of the table, through high anxiety, to a Champions League place with a game in hand. Recently Crace was having a serious chat to a fellow Spur when they went through both the Spurs and Barcelona teams man for man and came to the conclusion that only Lionel Messi would get a game for Spurs (and then only in rotation with Van der Vaart). That’s the spirit of Vertigo for you.

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.

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