Fine art of armchair sports fans

2009-10-29 00:00

NEWSPAPER readers come in two categories: those who head straight for the sports pages at the back of the paper and those who start at the front, but don’t bother with the stuff about balls, bats and kicking if and when they get that far.

I used to be more in the second ­category than the first — to be truthful, I probably still am — but over the years I have come to realise that some of the best writing in any paper is out there at the back.

Sports writers (and here I must put in a plug for Arts writers as well because we, like them, are paid for our passion and can approach it the same way) don’t just have to stick to the facts. Their opinions are a ­vital part of what they write. Poor old news reporters have to keep themselves to themselves. It must be a miserable writing life.

If you don’t believe me, check out a new book by former Witness Sports Editor John Bishop and Tiki Dickson, Talking Balls. Although light-hearted and often very funny, this is not a joke book, nor the kind of frivolous toilet humour ­destined to end up in that particular room.

It is a collection of articles by some of the most entertaining ­writers in the field of sport. That is the common thread running through all the pieces, but they touch on ­autograph hunting, ­surgery, shopping, Internet bridge, how not to prepare for a ­tennis ­tournament, Christmas away from home and even what it is that ­women really want.

Besides contributions from both Bishop and Dickson, there are ­plenty of other names familiar both from The Witness and the wider (sporting and non-sporting) world. Peter ­Roebuck, Andy Capostagno, the late Peter Robinson, Lolly ­Hornby, ­Lungani Zama, Ben Trovato, ­Edward Griffiths, Dan Nicholl, Neil Manthorp, Ray White, Mark ­Andrews and Chris Keal are all there, serving up their quirky and ­idiosyncratic view of the sporting life and their take on some of its ­towering and not so towering ­characters. And Witness cartoonist ­Stidy has added his inimitable touch.

The idea originally came from Dickson, a former teacher and school counsellor, book reviewer and columnist, and an old friend of Bishop’s who assisted him with an earlier book, the award-winning Mac: The Face of Rugby.

Not into playing sport, she ­describes herself as “a keen athletic supporter”, even though that’s the old name for a jock strap. But ­drawing a veil over such things, she explains: “When John retired as Sports Editor, and started writing columns for the paper that had ­nothing to do with sport but were wonderfully funny, I thought it would be an irresistible mix to put sport and humour together.” She started to talk to him about the idea, and it slowly developed.

The selection and editing process has been rigorous and, says ­Dickson, the collaboration process has been one of the strengths of the book. It has worked in two ways: when one of the authors felt things were going badly, the other would be upbeat and positive, and that ­second critical voice was hugely ­important in getting the best ­possible content into the book. And, they say, they are still friends.

Going back to where I started, I asked Bishop and Dickson about why sports writing is so often so good. “It’s like a critical review of what you have seen — you can’t just give a blow-by-blow or ball-by- ball report of a match. You have to have comment, interpretation and humour. The instant reports of the bare facts are there on the Internet or on television,” says Bishop.

“But to do it well, you have to be cautious, try not to be personal. You ask yourself, ‘Would I like this ­written about me?’ I often think it’s actually a bloody cheek — who are we as sports writers to sit there and pass judgment. So you have to be fair.” After all, sports writers have to admit that those they write about are doing their best, and, of course, can do it better than most of the rest of us.

Sports writers usually find it easy to talk to sportsmen and women — writer and doer share a passion for their subject. Passion shows in ­writing: if you love your subject, half the battle of getting it onto paper is won. It is why even those, like me, who can’t get excited about scores and results, still turn to the sports pages.

The writers in the collection, happy to share their enthusiasms, have generously allowed Bishop and Dickson to use their work. Another reason, says Dickson, is that Bishop himself is so widely respected as a sports writer that others are ­delighted to be associated with him.

Talking Balls is designed to ­appeal to those who turn first to the back page of the paper, as well as those who enjoy the good feeling that comes from reading clever, know­ledgeable, funny writing. It’s hard to imagine a better Christmas present for either group.

• Talking Balls by John Bishop and Tiki Dickson is published by Zebra Press. There will be a launch at Bookworld, Cascades, on November 3 at 5.30 pm for 6 pm. Andy Capostagno will be the speaker. (RSVP to Coleen at 033 347 1361 or to dicksons@ law.co.za). The authors will also be at Exclusive Books, Liberty Midlands Mall, from 10 am until noon on November 7 to sign copies and to meet readers.

Read the review here.

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