Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tim Wilson on sports writing

The 38th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is again from the August 1993 issue. The illustrations are by Chris Mousdale. I’ve had to reconfigure the text design slightly for clarity but the content is the same as the print version.

The intro read:
Sports writing in New Zealand causes a very similar reaction to sport itself – discuss it seriously and the fur may fly. A national disgrace, says one. Not really all that scruffy, another thinks. Doesn’t exist at all, according to someone else. With a little more effort and independence of thought, it’s agreed that our sports writers could do better. But, wondered Tim Wilson, could they do any worse? And if so, would anyone notice?
Over two weeks I scanned the sports pages of 20 New Zealand daily newspapers, from the reed-slim Oamaru Mail to the lumbering New Zealand Herald. I discovered games of two halves; games in which a win was a win. I witnessed huge men making big kicks; pitches invaded by articulated lorries and minis; disasters of biblical proportion. I heard the snap of tendons and the scream of metaphors being treated, well, unsportingly. Thumbs black with newsprint, I returned clutching five clippings that I thought weren’t especially good.
Actually, I thought some of them stank. But because I didn’t want to go out on a limb I obscured the writer’s names and organs, and sent the clip­pings to people who might. All is now revealed, gentle reader, as our judges discuss sports writing in general, and give their picks on the florid, the bad and the lazy.

1. Heart-stopping victory for talented Massey
Massey wrote, in letters of gold, one of their proudest results on their battle flag when they defeated Takapuna, 18-14, in the North Harbour club rugby championship on Saturday, keeping Massey as the only unbeaten side in the competition. They also wrote, in letters jittery enough to suggest approaching cardiac arrest, another chapter or two in their own special book – “How to Play Heart-in-the-Mouth Rugby” with the subtitle “Winning Footy in the Valium Valley”.
D.J. Cameron, New Zealand Herald, 14 June.

Lloyd Jones: “Death by metaphoric strangulation.” 

Wellington writer Lloyd Jones is a gadfly. According to him no sports writing is done in New Zealand. Be­sides the occasional profile in magazines, sports reporting is what we get. Most of it is pretty good, he says, but all of it misses the point: “Treating the game on its own turns it into an abstraction. That’s crazy. Obviously sport has the capacity to move the population but you never hear about that. There’s no sense of excitement or what’s at stake. Is anything at stake?”
At stake, perhaps, is the job of every hack in the country. But isn’t part of sport’s appeal its abstraction, that it is something idealised like, say, ballet with a winner? He disagrees.
“You couldn’t really say that ballet has tentacles reaching right through every section of society the way sport does. Sport actually organises society. It’s a Victorian or Edwardian idea that the rules of the sports field teach you the rules of life. . . teamwork, how to slot in, language. Look at sporting language: ‘level playing fields’, ‘playing the man and not the ball’. They’re examples of how sport is bigger than what happens at the park.”
But don’t the writers write to the level of the fans? “Sports fans here are pretty well informed. I think they would appreciate a greater sense of journey being brought to describing sports events. They don’t start at two o’clock at kick-off. They start days beforehand.”

2. Waitakere too classy for Ngaruawahia
Soccer was both a winner and a loser at Centennial Park, Ngaruawahia, yesterday. Competition favourite Waitakere City bundled DB Draught Ngaruawahia out of the Chatham Cup with a classy 5-0 win. But to the irritation of Waitakere officials, their vintage showing was all but snubbed in the Ngaruawahia clubrooms afterwards, as delayed telecast of the rugby league test took centre stage.
Bruce Holloway, Waikato Times, 21 June.

Phil Gifford: “Soccer the winner and the loser? It’s a classic, two cliches for the price of one.” 

“I guess I’ve been running a sort of a campaign, which Lloyd has now joined, of trying to write seriously about sport, which doesn’t mean pretentiously or in any wanky way, but just to write well about sport,” Roger Robinson muses. Once he worked as an athletics reporter for the Christchurch Star. Now he lectures students at Victoria University on the subject of English. Speaking to him, I feel the years fall away. I am being taught. “Obviously there have been some decent sports writers. Alex Veysey has been very good, and people like Roy Williams have always been very able journalists. Where we’ve been short is feature pieces and books. Do you know my book?”
Er, no.
“It’s a book on running called Heroes and Sparrows. That’s been well received, as I hoped it would be, in a whole range of reader groups, right through from just sports people through to literary people. And that was the whole idea, to write something which wasn’t just sports reporting but had a philosophical and especially literary dimension to it.”
Robinson describes a cultural dislocation: local writers glaring down their biros at sport. “They are anti-snobbish about everything else; but the one thing they’ve just dumped on and sneered at is sport.”

3. The view from the embankment
It was a game of two halves – both were full of errors and boring, but the second had a nice touch at the end. Saturday’s first test between the British Lions and the All Blacks at Lancaster Park was lifeless. The only thing which made the game absorbing – but still not exciting – was the closeness of the scores. Ironically, a skydiving display before the game gave every indication that the goal kickers would struggle. It’s now history that 33 of the 38 points scored were from penalty goals. Two of the skydivers made it on to the field while a third landed in the dead ball area after coming perilously close to decapitating several spectators.
Angus Morrison, Southland Times, 14 June.

Brian Turner: “An empty piece.” 

Secure proper writers, then, and you will have sports writing proper? Phil Gifford isn’t so sure. “You know Lloyd’s book?” he asks.
This time I do. Jones edited a selection of his kind of sports writing, Into The Field Of Play – how successfully depends on whom you talk to. “Without being specific,” offers Gifford, “there was some stuff in there that I found to be incredibly turgid and extremely boring.”
One opinion holds that those who really knew sport (through participation, for example) produced tauter, better pieces than the wheezing literati. Only those who play may know. True enough, perhaps, in the case of Jones’ book, but it’s a notion with nasty implications. Had Sophocles, for example, adopted it while writing Oedipus Rex, how well would he have treated his Mum and Dad?
The spin is vaguely similar when Gifford dismisses critics of sports reportage. That bad writing comes from the newspapers is an idea common among people who don’t write for newspapers. “When you’re working for newspapers there’s obviously not the time to perfect style. You’ve got to get the bloody story in.”
He’s right. Jones and Robinson have worked on newspapers. Neither disparages them. Gifford toiled at the Auckland Star and the Herald for 15 years. All three men have written for magazines such as Metro, North & South and the Listener, and enjoyed the luxury of increased time and space.

4. Tawhai turns up trumps
As I watched Horouta come from 9-0 down to beat a side tipped to be among the front runners, I couldn’t help thinking of a car event between an articulated truck and a bunch of souped-up minis. The truck (Ngatapa) had power and height up front and a lively back division, capable of causing concern. Unfortunately for the Green and White supporters, their side played as though they were running on reserve and without a driver.
John Hill, Gisborne Herald, 21 June.

Brian Turner: “It’s gloriously full of . . . Well, we’ve got supergas and comprehensive displays, revelling in and all the rest of it. Anyway, there was quite a bit of information there.” 

Brian Turner, poet, sometime sports writer and one-time national hockey rep, is not as tolerant as Gifford. The apology that tight deadlines cause sloppy copy makes him impatient. “Those same constraints surely apply to the larger papers overseas. In the States and Britain, for instance, you can read any section of the paper and get high-quality comments, nice phrasing and sentence construction. There has been some improvement in the sports area over here, but not nearly enough.”
Turner says what he thinks. He wishes sports journalists would too. Perhaps journalists are cowardly. Well, clubs, administrators and codes can also be prickly. The Herald came very close to being banned from the dressing rooms of the national league side during the Australian tour. Their crime? Not saying nice things about the lads. In the end the paper wasn’t banned. Coverage grew more, shall we say, sensitive. “Superkiwis Turn on a Stunner”, the Herald enthused after the first test draw.
As you might expect from a hockey player and cyclist, Turner grumbles about ditheistic coverage: rugby in winter, cricket in summer. Often the style is just as unremitting. “The language is littered with allusions to war and combat. You’re less likely to find a comment on grace or poise or the aesthetics of something. You’re also less likely to find human emotions other than the extreme ones. I get pissed off with continual talk of pride. Pride, power and glory. There’s no range of comment. There’s not enough irony, not enough cynicism, not enough humour and not enough pathos.”

5. Muscled minnows
When the North Harbour Rugby Union was born the knockers on the southern shores of the Auckland Harbour Bridge predicted the first division clubs, North Shore, Takapuna, Northcote and East Coast Bays, would thrive.
The minnows, it was said . . . would, in the face of cricket score losses, slowly curl up and die. The small fry, however, were made of stern stuff. Pride, giant-sized hearts and club spirit were winning ingredients. Now, into the ninth season of Harbour rugby, the one-time min­nows, developed into fully fledged man-eaters, are respected by all.
J.A. Gasparich, New Zealand Herald, 19 June.

Lloyd Jones: “The problem with a metaphor like this is that once you step into it, you’ve got to step into it up to your neck.”

Now to pick the prize specimen of lousy sports writing. The result? Not exactly a knockout. Robinson asked to be excused – he was going overseas. Jones and Turner hold similar views on how sport should be written about, yet both selected different’ pieces. “Muscled Minnows” turned Turner’s stomach, while Jones found that D.J. Cameron’s Herald piece on “Heart­-stopping Massey” caused his own heart to miss a beat.
Both agreed that Waikato Times writer Bruce Holloway’s tale in which soccer was the winner and the loser had merit. “It tells a bit of a story,” Turner said, while Jones enjoyed the “self-conscious use of cliche” at the beginning.
Gifford spoiled everything. He didn’t believe that particular cliche was self-conscious, nor did he believe the collection of extracts was especially execrable, merely mediocre. Top three for him were the first three. The remaining two didn’t strike him either way.
Winning teams, as the cliche goes, are those which put the most points on the board. Accordingly, we made a decision based on points. The envelope, please.
How apt that the winning worst piece included references to writing; writing on battle flags, writing chapters, writing autobiographies, writing arias for rugby operas. D.J. Cameron of the New Zealand Herald, take a bow.
This is unfortunate, because Cameron has written some fine pieces on cricket. The moral then? Even the best can have a very bad day indeed.

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