I didn't want to like this book from the very start. The fact that Simon Barnes is chief sports writer for the Times was an inauspicious marker. Anything that falls under the umbrella of the Murdoch media empire is sure to be tainted. Then there was the distinct whiff of Oxbridge about the opening few chapters complete as they were with clever literary references and a liberal sprinkling of Latin, French and German phrases. To make matters worse, Barnes is one of those 'horsey' people with a total preoccupation with all things equestrian. Not exactly the sport of the proles. And when he wasn't waxing lyrical on the symbiotic relationship between man and horse he switched to his other obsession, Steve Redgrave and his five Olympic Gold medals. Rowing; another working class sport practised by millions across Asia, Africa and the inner city ghettos of the metropolises.

So the reader is treated to the all expenses paid travels of a Times sports correspondent as he flits from one elite sporting event to another. Not a mention of grassroots sports played by tens of millions of people every day, whose relationship with their sport must surely have something to do with the meaning of sport. Do their humble experiences count for nothing? Do the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who give their all to their humble little clubs count for nothing in the analysis of sport and its meaning. Not a mention of such trifling matters for our Mr Barnes. He has more glamorous fish to fry. So overall it doesn't sound too promising does it! 



It came as a huge shock and a wonderful, delightful surprise then, that by the end of the read I found myself wanting to rush out and buy fifty copies of the book and distribute them like confetti to all and sundry. I haven't felt like that since completing Richard Dawkins, 'The God Delusion'.
I can say without reservation that this is the best sports book I have ever read and possibly one of the better books of any genre I have ever read. If Barnes had titled his book, The Meaning of Life, it would not have been overly pretentious because on nearly every page he gently explores what it is to be human. Above all, for Barnes, the human condition is one of contradiction and his musing on sport both from the performer and the spectator illustrate this point convincingly. Barnes could easily be writing about any one of the myriad human endeavours. He simply chose sport because that is what he knows best. By the end of the tale you feel you have been treated to a perceptive philosophical text but one mercifully free of academic jargon. This is philosophy for the everyman. It is the book I would have loved to have written.

Barnes explores the dialectic relentlessly. There is the obvious dialectical unity between winning and losing and the accompanying relationship between the pain and pleasure that must occur at every sporting encounter. But Barnes does not leave it at that. He understands that every winner will sooner or later taste the bitterness of defeat and even for the handful of sporting athletes who retire at the top; they too taste the defeat in being no longer able to perform at the highest level. One day they are invincible champions, the next they are just a fading memory and after a few decades not even that. Either way, every athlete in every sport knows that defeat and pain are lurking behind every sporting day. The old champions give way to the new. Youth and innocence are perpetually in battle with age and experience. As in sport so for all human endeavour.

The very best, the most poignant paragraph for me comes in chapter 96 and I trust Barnes will forgive me if I quote it at length.

'Humans are contradictory creatures. This matter is familiar to us all: we want at the same time to be married, to be free: to be wildly promiscuous, to be forever faithful; to travel, to stay at home; to seek adventures, to remain in safety; to be idle, to be rewardingly busy; to revel in company, to be contentedly alone. And sport being a human pursuit, is naturally filled with contradictions.'

It delighted me but did not overly surprise me that Barnes, the master at unravelling the contradictions within sport should pay homage to the musical master of human contradiction, a one Mr Robert Zimmerman better known by his stage persona, Bob Dylan. Barnes makes the point that any great wordsmith or artist, like the greatest of sports athletes, go beyond the rational, thinking level. They operate at the instinctual level so when asked how they managed to achieve such wonders they are genuinely unable to explain; not even to themselves. Greatness then, perhaps is the dialectical interplay between the conscious and the subconscious. Barnes, quoting Dylan muses, If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You've got to programme your brain not to think too much. 

Towards the end of this magical masterpiece Barnes offers us a summation of the dialectical meaning of sport and I doubt if anyone will ever produce a better all encompassing summary. Without giving too much away I cannot resist quoting the first few lines. They give a tantalising taste of what is on offer page after page after page.

Sport is everything: sport is nothing. Sport is important: sport is trivial. Sport is packed with meaning: sport means nothing. Sport is an escape from real life: sport makes life uncompromisingly vivid. Sport is packed with contradictions: Sport is the most straightforward thing on the planet. Sport is simple: sport is complex. Get the idea?

End. JPK 19/04/09

Post Script: Simon Barnes, a man who knows a thing or two about travel, might be quietly amused to learn that the above review was penned at the very edge of Alice Springs, at the foothills of a sacred Aboriginal site teeming with exotic central Australian birdlife.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 27 May 2018 15:34 )