Brought to book – can angling finally land the big one?

THIS IS the time of year that publishers reveal their book prize candidates for feckless people like me seeking inspiration for Christmas presents.

We’ve already had the 2010 Booker Prize for literary heavyweights. This competition has produced some memorable novels during its 44 years, although even its most ardent supporters would acknowledge that the winners are not always a bundle of laughs. Almost never in fact.

This year’s selection – the Finkler Question – is a story about “love, loss, male friendship, and exploring what it means to be Jewish today.”

Feeling that I am not fully in the target demographic for Howard Jacobson’s, no doubt excellent work, it’s with some relief that I have been examining contenders for the lesser-known, but often more satisfying, William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award.

In 21 years since its inception The “Bookie Prize” has awarded its laurels to rowing, professional cycling (twice), boxing (four times), soccer (five times), rugby, golf, martial arts, cricket (four times), horse racing, and athletics.

Along the way the winners and short-listed candidates have generated some of the best writing and phrase-making of the past two decades.

Test batsmen Marcus Trescothick’s 2008 account of his descent into the serious depression which wrecked his career remains a masterpiece of sports autobiography which also combines the modern taste for the confessional. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch (1992) had a decisive influence on the way in which soccer has been both perceived and marketed. Then there was In Black and White (2002), Donald McRae’s depiction of the lives of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, the sons of two Alabama sharecroppers who were fashioned by The Man into symbols of opposition to fascism and the fulfilment of The Great American Dream.

A noticeable absentee from this catalogue of serious and evocative authorship is that there is no great piece of sports literature about GAA which has been able to capture the attention of the rest of the world. Or even make the shortlist.

It’s not for any lack of interest in Irish subjects. In only the second year of the competition Mike Taub’s biography of Cobh-born boxer Jack Doyle – Fighting for Love – was edged out by A Rough Ride, the inside story of professional cycling by the former rider turned journalist Paul Kimmage. There have been candidates covering fell-running, surfing, mountaineering, the 1979 Fastnet Race disaster... but not a single entry illuminating the rich and dramatic history of hurling or football.

But there is an even more startling omission from the honours board. Angling is probably the single largest participant sport in the world. Yet you would be hard pressed to name more than three popular books on the subject.

Let’s have a go: The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton (the most republished volume in the English language with the exception of The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer), Jaws, and the mythical Fly Fishing by JR Hartley. Moby Dick doesn’t count. Now you’re struggling.

That’s about to change with an astonishing novel entitled Blood Knots by Luke Jennings... on the surface a gentle memoir about days spent by the rivers, chalk streams and canal banks of England, but in the depths a terrifying recall of one of the most notorious episodes in Irish contemporary history.

Jennings describes the two heroes of his life. One, his father, was a member of a Second World War tank crew who suffered from appalling burns after an attack on a Dutch village. The other was a support teacher at Ampleforth; the famous Benedictine school on the Yorkshire moors which the author attended.

Together they formed a relationship founded on a mutual love of rod and line. But Jennings’s young mentor was Robert Nairac, a resonant name in the history of The Troubles whose 1977 kidnapping, torture and execution in Co Louth by the IRA following his career as a British special forces undercover agent remains one of Ireland’s unsolved mysteries.

Nairac is one of “The Disappeared” whose graves have never been revealed and whose cases are kept under review by the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains. For sheer intellectual accomplishment, and use of metaphor, Jennings deserves a prize. Not that he will find it easy.

For sheer intellectual accomplishment, and use of metaphor, Jennings deserves a prize. Not that he will find it easy. His competition includes The Last English Summer, a fin de siècle description of the changes which confronted county cricket in 2009, from the masterly Yorkshire Post deputy editor Duncan Hamilton, twice a previous winner with biographies of Brian Clough and Harold Larwood.

Also short-listed is Brian Moore’s self- revelatory Beware of the Dog in which he recounts his sexual abuse as a child by a churchgoing friend of his adoptive parents, both Methodist lay preachers; a haunting autobiography from Andre Agassi; Matthew Sayeed’s Bounce – an analysis of how champions are made – and Catrine Clay’s compelling account of the transition of Bert Trautmann from Hitler Youth to FA Cup legend for Manchester City.

Great sports writing tells us as much about life as it does about sport. Happily for us, we are in a golden age of the art.


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