Saturday, 5 November 2011

Fully booked

I'm naturally thrilled to see that Whose Side Are You On is on the longlist for the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year. Given the strength and size of the longlist - 30 books in all - I'm not holding my breath. But it's that strength and depth that deserves mention here, I think. When I worked in bookshops back in the late 1980s and first half of the 1990s sports books were only just beginning to be recognised as an area in publishing that could offer literary as well as commercial rewards. I remember the shock of reading Dave Hill's Out Of His Skin in 1989, a book about John Barnes which looked critically and intelligently at the subject of racism in English football. And the shock of recognition in reading Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch three years later (even if Hornby's a Gooner, his account of being a fan in the eighties was all too true)
Of course there had been good sports books before - the obvious example is Arthur Hopcraft's The Football Man* which was published back in 1968. But too often sport was seen by publishers back then as the subject of Christmas cash-ins - anodyne biographies or statto-obsessed cheap lash-ups.
This is not based on much beyond fuzzy memory, but I reckon that the success of football fanzines like When Saturday Comes and in Scotland the wonderful The Absolute Game recalibrated the image of sports writing. Publishers suddenly seemed to wake up to the possibility that there was a market for intelligent,committed sports writing.

It probably helped, too, that UK editions of men's lifestyle magazines such as Esquire and GQ were launched in the eighties and began to commission writers to look at sport at length in the same way as the likes of George Plimpton and Gay Talese had been doing in the US for years and decades before. Colm Toibin, I recall, wrote a particularly fine piece for Esquire about Diego Maradona.
The result has transformed sports publishing. My own publisher Random House launched its sport imprint Yellow Jersey in 1989.
And so we arrive, 20 years later, with 30 books on a longlist about Irish sport, a list that is full of really intriguing titles - Nicolas Roche's Inside The Peleton (an Irish example of the current boom in cycling books), autobiographies from jockeys Paul Carberry and AP McCoy and boxer Barry McGuigan (the latter two both turn up in Whose Side Are You On?), the latest book from Paul Kimmage, a whole host of books about the GAA, including Malachy Clerkin's account of Dublin's All-Ireland success. And that's just to scratch the surface. Impressive company for Whose Side Are You On?
Whoever wins the fact that William Hill realises that there are enough books worthy of being considered to be named as sports book of the year - one in Britain and one in Ireland - is a reflection of sporting titles these days. At some point in the next few days I'll try and come up with a list of my own five favourite sports books. You're welcome to suggest your own.

* Hopcraft, I learn from his obituary in The Guardian, also adapted Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for the small screen.

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