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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

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