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Litterary death match

In the Autumn of 2014, feeling somewhat down about his wordsmithing career, uncertain in his role as model for his two sons, and with one eye on the health of his own father, Toby Litt decided to take on the oft-postponed biography of great-great-great-grandfather William.

An undefeated prize-fighter and winner of 200 belts in the popular – if now slightly quaint – 19th-century pursuit of Cumberland & Westmorland Wrestling (hereafter: ‘wrestling’), William Litt (1785–1850) was something of a Renaissance man. He wrote ‘the first [English?] history of wrestling’ (Wrestliana, 1823) as well as a ‘densely worded’ and rather autobiographical novel, contributed poetry and correspondence to the Cumberland newsheets, became a trainee priest, a noncommittal farmer, a bankrupt brewer, and a school-teacher, and even dabbled in a spot of smuggling. He wore his top boots in the ring, and was, in his day, a big noise in the North-West: ‘the Champion of the Green’, as much written about as writing – a sort of ‘Gentleman Jim’.

But he was not, crucially, a gentleman. And, lacking focus perhaps for his talents, he went off the boil quite fundamentally after his sporting retirement. He made no money, abandoned his family (Litt – Toby – is at pains to stress that he himself plays football with his kids, a lot), and retired to the ultimate obscurity of Canada, like an old heroic Greek who cannot come to terms with his mortality. That or, more prosaically, he’d had a run-in with his Cumberlandlords.

There was one final burst of letters to the Pacquet, and then… nothing. Two centuries later, his biographer stands awkwardly beside an intersection where his grave should be.

With its local customs, Wordsworth sidebars, notes on the cosmopolitan elite vs the (real) countryside – and did you know that ‘buttock’ is a verb in wrestling…? – Wrestliana is at once a family history, rural psychogeography, and a breezy, open window on the writing life, with all its disappointments, dead ends and half-conclusions.

But this is not what Wrestliana is about.

What Wrestliana is about is: why is Toby Litt not more like William Litt? What makes a man in 2018 – and how’s that different from in 1818? Are there physical and intellectual forms of manliness?

Litt, ‘a puny Southern desk-worker who play[s] video-games’, checks Dads v Lads, school bullying (by his own admission, the reason he became a writer), Norman Mailer’s dog, and other quotidian ‘tests’ of one’s machismo, and concludes: ‘Even when they’re not wrestling, men are always wrestling.’ Worse, in the present-day iteration of this conflict, between what he calls the ‘two tribes of masculinity’ – the professional sportsmen and the poets, ‘who distain sport’ – he sees no chance of a reconciliation: ‘if you’re well-balanced, then you must be a well-balanced no-hoper.’

Twas ever thus, no doubt – unless you really were a moneyed gentleman.

Litt is a bit hard on himself, and gives his forebear too much credit. Though there is, it transpires, a chain of writers from William Litt down to his great-great-great-grandson, and even if William was ‘an unprecedented combination of athletic superiority and literary talent’, and though his poetry be soever put to decent biographical use, he was, needless to say, not a professional poet, and there is too much of his verse in this book.

But, as the gap between the two men narrows, Litt (of course) decides to give the wrestling a try – and comes up even more impressed than previously. ‘What “all-rounder” means, in cricket, is just that a man can bowl and bat and field, not that they can write a decent essay on the causes of the French Revolution and cook beef Wellington and play the flute… William was a genuine all-round man, a real oddity.’

While Litt won’t claim to have cracked this age-old problem (our 21st-century man can’t shed a tear at William’s ‘graveside’ – and feels bad about it), and some might find his wrestling-as-life a smidge predictable, he feels the metaphor is apt.

At any rate, he’s rightly sceptical of football as the vehicle for any of life’s (or even sport’s) essential lessons. The last words of the book are ‘They shake hands.’


For The Oldie

M.O.’s m.o. – or; Everybody wants to be like Mike

A review of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight.


For The Spectator

Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy Bluffer’s Guide

Last weekend I played host to a particularly friendly cricket match – by which I mean that both teams had no clue what they were doing.

The opposition, Rain Men, were captained by my friend and usual team-mate Simon, whose excuse was that he’d only played the game 263 times previously. The other captain was, er, me.

I staffed it out (to my younger and more-gifted brother, specifically). For Simon’s part, I gather he was cruelly sent a copy of Mike Brearley’s The Art of Captaincy. But what we could really both have used, perhaps, was the Bluffer’s Guide to Cricket.

‘Only a fool will start bluffing without a basic knowledge of how to play the game,’ say James Trollope and Nick Yapp, authors of this revised and updated 126 pages of ‘instant wit and wisdom’™.

But as anyone who has ever even heard of cricket is aware, there is nothing remotely basic about it, a sport so intellectually and emotionally discombobulating – not to say physically demanding – that players have to stop repeatedly for food and, at the highest levels of the game, sleep. The laws of cricket, per se, may only take up 30 pages, but they are mostly small print. (‘You’d be better off learning irregular verbs in Serbo-Croat.’) So, pretty soon, we are clarifying vital minutiae such as the Duckworth Lewis Method (‘not a form of birth control’), how you should never bluff around a man holding a scorebook, and why no-one ever thinks he’s caught a ‘dolly’.

All these things – it goes without saying – are entirely uproarious for those who’ve actually played some cricket. (Americans need not write in.)

Of course, a lot of rubbish is talked around and indeed within the boundary of a cricket match, not least because there is so much time available, especially when – hypothetically speaking – one has been sent back to the dressing room by an unplayable left-arm inswinging first-ball yorker. And as even the most otherworldly amateur cricketing gentleman will confirm, there is no surer test of one’s relationship than bringing an uninitiated girlfriend along to a full day’s village cricket. On this, readers may wish to take with a pinch of salt the suggestion that ‘you might be surprised (and relieved) to discover that a lot of talk at a cricket match doesn’t actually involve cricket.’ And only a certifiable lunatic would repeat within earshot the opinion that ‘rather like the offside rule in football, nobody is quite sure how [the lbw 'rule'] works.’

But for those plucky chaps (and chapesses) brave enough to want to hold their own on or near the field of glory, there are sub-sections on ‘bodyline’, Test Match Special, and the importance of ‘the protection’; tips on what to say about the national side (‘Pretending to be an Englishman if you’re actually a South African is bluffing of the highest order’); mini-biographies of the great and good (incl. Fuller Pilch, 1803–1870, who played, cut grass, and tended bar for what is now my village club); and a glossary of Johnsonian-type definitions (‘Beamer: … Bowlers always pretend they didn’t mean to’). There’s even – gasp – a bit on women’s cricket.

Still, ‘there’s no point in pretending that you know everything about cricket – nobody does’ (Trollope and Yapp have not met Marcus Berkmann, obviously…). But having riffled – and/or ROFLd – through their waggish pages, you could at least consider yourself ‘a bona fide expert in the art of bluffing about the world’s most puzzling and incomprehensible game’.

A word of warning, though: ‘An extreme bluffer may even take the dangerous step of accepting an invitation to play. This is not recommended.’

Witty, mischievous, and above all thoroughly genial, The Bluffer’s Guide to Cricket is among Haynes Publishing’s (they of the car manuals) ‘refreshed’ line-up of 16 Bluffer’s Guides, spanning – and occasionally cross-referencing – such typical pre-, post- and even intra-prandial conversational ‘opportunities’ as fishing, beer, golf, cats, cycling, and management.

With the series now well into its sixth decade, discerning Oldie readers might also enjoy the classic Keith Hann volume on opera (Kiri Te Kanawa is related to Sir Arthur Sullivan, by adoption), William Hanson’s drippingly snotty guide to etiquette (please don’t stack the Sèvres china…), Susie Boniface’s implacable run-down of social media, and Jonathan Goodall and Harry Eyres on that holiest of all bullshitter’s – I, I… I mean ‘bluffer’s’ – holy grails: talking about (rather than simply getting on and drinking) wine.

There is, obviously, a bluff (a double-bluff?) inherent in the Bluffer’s Guides – which is that no-one’s ever going to come to these for explanations. The market, surely, is people who already understand a thing and would like some cheerful British humour on the subject. By way of Christmas presents, probably. This only works, of course, if the information in the books is broadly accurate. All the same, a good few authors bluff on their relative unfitness to write authoritatively about their chosen topics.

The latest in the series is The Bluffer’s Guide to Brexit.

DO SAY
‘Keep calm and negotiate.’

DON’T SAY
‘Let’s hold another referendum on whether to hold another referendum.’

Possessors of strong views on the elephant in the room de nos jours will be pleased (or displeased…?) to find that Boris Starling’s primer tells you what to say – and with the aid of 54 footnotes, what is more – but it doesn’t tell you what to think. Starling’s back-page biog maintains ‘he determinedly keeps his own counsel about Brexit… refusing to be drawn on his views about something so fraught with imponderables’. (Elsewhere he claims he asked his editor to guess at his position on the matter.)

For the rest of us, though, on this, as on so many topics, would-be bluffers can console themselves with Starling’s fundamental theme: ‘Only one thing can be said with certainty about Brexit: nobody knows anything.’

The Bluffer’s Guides are (re)published today


For The Oldie, in a different edit

Monty’s trouble

A footsoldier’s review of Antony Beevor’s Arnhem: the Battle for the Bridges, 1944.


For The Oldie

Monday, 28th May

Bank holiday sun.
The home-improvers chatter
in their hammered morse.

Sehr Gutenberg

On movable type, the Internet, and almost every damn thing in between.


For The Oldie

Spies like us?

A less-than-Smiley response to John le Carré.


For The Oldie

NEWS AT A GLANCE

.
Norway has five leper hospitals, with about 600 patients.

The Nelson Evening Mail, January 24 1907
.

There is an injury called ’tennis elbow of the heel’.

The rocks in the Sultanate of Oman are special.

Hitler only started all the Nazi bollocks because he was such a godawful painter.

There is no necessary connection between the poetic vocation on the one hand, and on the other exhibitionism, egoism, and licence.

Too much pudding will choak a dog.

In Tibetan there is no word for a mountain summit.

Stephen Merchant’s dad is stingy.

In June 2009 Edwin Rist stole 299 stuffed birds from the Natural History Museum in Tring, worth $1 million.

Francis Urquhart MP was a lieutenant in the Scots Guards.

Whether our first parent, Adam, had any pretensions to the art of pugilism, is involved in too great obscurity, at this remote period, for us to penetrate into with any possibility of success.

Only four US states require police officers to exhaust alternatives before resorting to deadly force.

The London International Palaeography Summer School offers over 25 courses in palaeography, codicology, and manuscript studies.

Samaritans answer 6000 calls a day in the UK. A further 15,000 phone-calls go unanswered.
.

NEWS AT A GLANCE

.
We call our day 24 hours, but it is really 23 hours 56 minutes 5 seconds.

The Nelson Evening Mail, September 28 1906
.

‘Facetious’ is the shortest word in the English language including all the vowels in alphabetical order.

The English theatre loves the joker.

Samuel Beckett notched up 35 runs in first-class cricket.

UK funeral directors are fuming because people found something out.

The Republic lives with its face uncovered.

Men working in the fields sing pentatonic tunes.

American biscuits are in fact scones.

A boatman has taken 99 mackerel in three hours by whiffling.

2.8 million viewers tuned in to find out who shot JR Ewing.

Torture in Uzbekistan is institutionalised, systematic and rampant.

Ross Brown is now active.

Californium 252 costs $30,000,000 a gram.

Storm’s a-coming.
.