Book Review: This Sporting Life

By Phil Dimitriadis

One of the early fictional accounts of a footballer’s life was This Sporting Life by David Storey. This work examines the contradictions and paradoxes that affect a footballer’s career directly and vicariously through the actions and attitudes of those involved with the main character, named Arthur Machin. Machin works at the factory owned by the Primstone Rugby League club’s major financial backer, Charles Weaver. Machin at first sees his career as an opportunity to make some extra cash and enjoy his bachelorhood. He soon realizes that people like Weaver and the club’s other major powerbroker, Slomer treat most players as pawns in their own battle to be seen as the most respected citizen of this local community.

Machin thinks that he is taking everybody for a fool in the early stages of this work. He lives cheaply with the widowed Mrs. Hammond and her two small children, keeping a room, just close enough to ensure that he has his privacy, but also a regular sexual partner. He underestimates the passion of those around him including his own family. It dawns on him that life is not just a job and neither is Rugby league. His early mentor Johnson warns him in a way that coaches and commentators still caution football players some fifty years later. He says:

There’s many a good player been ruined…really ruined, because he was too damn lazy to train. You know what I mean? Because he could play a couple of blinders in a row he thought he needn’t train. It goes to their heads. You see them walking about as if they owned the place…(p. 36)

Johnson’s observation not only refers to football. The character may not realize it, but he is warning Arthur about the pitfalls that this sort of laid-back attitude can have in his personal life. There is a moral here that does not reek of the clichéd ‘work hard and succeed” motif because it is linked to Arthur’s relationships with his parents and Mrs Hammond. The flipside of the moral urges Arthur to not take people for granted, as he has a tendency to do throughout most of the book. Johnson pushed for him at Primstone and helped him get noticed by the managers and coaches. However, Arthur soon distances himself from Johnson, treating him like a parasitic old mentor who wants to live off the coattails of a potential champion. The narrative constructs Machin as a narcissistic mercenary who cares little for the people who helped get him to the apex of his football career.

However, there is also a tendency for the narrative to deliberately establish scenarios where characters  like Machin get their comeuppance as a result of this flaw in their nature. The paradox occurs where Machin reasons that people expect him to act and treat them the way he does. It is almost as if having an individual aura is meaningless without the spectators’ approval. Hill argues, “Once attained, sporting heroism is an empty prize. Storey portrays nothing worthy of admiration. Machin’s life becomes a struggle to release himself from the cultural cage in which he is trapped.” (p.63). The question then is whether fans create the myths of the star player only to mock and deride if he does not live up to their expectations. The supporters’ vanguard forces the player to rearguard for his own moral well-being.  Machin says:

The way people looked at me , spoke to me, handled my affairs generally whenever I wanted to buy a suit, a stick of chewing-gum, a gallon of petrol. They made me feel I owned the place. Course I strutted about. They expected it. I couldn’t help it. They wanted me to be a hero – and I wanted to be a hero. Why couldn’t she see that? ( p. 162)

The quandary of reconciling the demands of personal relationships with that of the public is a common theme in football’s fictional literature. Female characters like Val Hammond are constructed to ensure that the hero can only be truly heroic if he can show a compassionate and human part of his character, making him both believable and sympathetic for the readers/viewers.

Val may not be the central player, but she is certainly central to the fate of those that like to think they are, the football players. Storey demonstrates the fickle, yet tantalizing nature of fame when  Machin states:

I wasn’t going to be a footballer forever. But I was an ape. Big, awe-inspiring, something interesting to see perform. No feelings. It’d always paid to have no feelings. So I had no feelings. I was paid not to have feelings. It paid me to have none. People looked at me as if I was an ape. Walking up the road like this they looked at me exactly as they’d look at an ape walking about without a cage…It was just what I needed when they next saw me run onto the field, just the thing to make them stare in awe, and wonder if after all I might be like them. I might be human. ( p. 164)

It takes the eventual death of Val to get Arthur to take himself seriously as an athlete and not a sideshow attraction. Real life has gotten in the way of the perceived and projected images while distorting them and compelling the characters to draw something out of themselves that represents the real passion of their lives. Art Machin plays football for the love of the game and the real feeling of becoming a fit and supreme sportsman after Val dies. If it were just about football, life would not need to get this complicated.

A tense contradiction is at play here. Developing an aptitude for absorbing pressure does not fit so easily with the polar expectation of being a gentlemanly role model. Can mental toughness and a heightened competitive instinct be controlled mechanically? Football and life contain emotions that cannot be modified by remote control. It is therefore not surprising to see footballers in fiction and in reality, struggle with the concept of how to express their manliness in a variety of contexts.

The predatory nature of characters like Machin is nurtured by the football culture that surrounds them, but this does not mean that the football culture is solely responsible for the flaws in their characters. A fiercely competitive gentleman who knows when to be competitive and then adapt to relationships outside football would be the ideal role model, but would these types of characters make the fiction of the game worth reading? Probably not, because it is the darker side of sportspeople that makes them more interesting. They become acutely human in contrast to their heightened celebrity and Storey captures this dilemma perceptively. This Sporting Life was way ahead of its time and is still pertinent to football cultures across all codes.

About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.

Comments

  1. Evelyn Price says:

    Mr. Dimitriadis,
    I’m sure you have probably realised by now that ‘This Sporting Life’ is about Rugby League not Football, although your analysis equally applies to both games. Your comments, however, are very useful as I am working through Storyey’s narrative as part of my Literature MA.

  2. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Hi Evelyn,
    Where are you studying and what topic are you researching? This review was part of a PhD I was doing on the Literature of mainly Australian Football. Some reviews included Soccer, Rugby Union and Rugby League. I found ‘This Sporting Life’ to be one of the best pieces of fictional sports literature that I’ve read. Still powerful and relevant after 50 years.

  3. Stainless says:

    Hey Phil
    Can you suggest any other fictional works with a sporting theme that you’d categorise as good/great literature? It seems to me that they’re pretty thin on the ground.

    The question of why this is so should be a key one for the Almanac community.

    Is it because sport, frankly, is a simple concept – a contest played within simple confines, governed by simple rules and with simple, clear outcomes – and is therefore a limited canvas for writers of any intellect and depth?

    Is it because most decent writers who write about sport find sufficient drama and colour from the real thing such that fictional representations pale by comparison?

    Or perhaps it is that the majority of sports fans are not your literary types and as such, club histories and player biographies are the only sports books that actually sell?

    Interested in your thoughts given your studies in the field.

    Cheers

    Stainless

  4. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Stainless,
    One of the reasons that I’m a huge fan of ‘Players’ by Tony Wilson is because Tony is an excellent writer who was also a talented footballer. He is able to balance the world s of literature and footy in this novel because he knows a great deal about both and can articulate his knowledge convincingly at both the sporting and literary level.

    Herein, lies the problem of dearth in sports fiction. Maybe not enough really good writers have experience as elite athletes and vice-versa. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. There is a great deal of poetry and adolescent fiction available on most sports. Generally the stories follow the classic child hero formula of quest, resistance and redemption. Easy to read and easy to relate to.

    Serious fictional novels are sparse maybe because sport contains a carefully constructed and conditioned narrative of play and the rhetoric of the Apollonian ideal. Subverting these ideologies is often met with too much resistance from the average sports fan, but also from journos who fancy themselves as writers and academics who prefer to stick to the dry historical facts rather than have the specter of fiction hovering over their empirical safe houses. Interesting questions Stainless and if I continue, it will turn into an essay!

  5. Stainless says:

    Phil

    Well you haven’t added to my reading list, although “This Sporting Life” is one book I have meant to read for a long time now.

    I suspect that your take on the dearth of good sports fiction is much like mine (although more eloquently expressed). i think you’re a bit harsh on Apollo though. He does figure prominently in some decent ancient literature (and he could play a bit).

    I’ve read “Players” and I did think of it when I posted my earlier comment as a rare example. i agree with you that Tony is a fine writer who understands his subject through direct experience, but I’m afraid I could only class the novel as an amusing but lightweight satire that would appeal to a narrow predominantly Melbourne-based readership who are familiar with the real characters sent up in the book.

    Racking my brains on this question, I’m ashamed to say that the most prolific writer of fiction with a sporting theme I can think of is Dick Francis who’s churned out a series of passable but fairly formulaic thrillers drawing on his earlier career as a jockey. Not too many insightful observations about the human condition in these I have to say, although he does have some gritty accounts about what the racing game is really like. For all the ignorant nongs who surface at this time of year blathering on about the glamour of racing, they could do worse than read some of Francis.

  6. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Footywise, there’s not much to recommend Stainless. Barrie Oakley’s ‘A Salute to the Great McCarthy’ is very good, even though that ridiculous movie did its best to destroy a decent story. Alan Wearne’s ‘Kicking In Danger’ is quirky, but lightweight satire. Philip Gwynne’s ‘Deadly Unna’ definitely worth a read, even though it may be classed as adolescent fiction, it tackles serious issues of identity, race and drug abuse.

    I’ve just finished reading Christos Tsiolkas’ new book ‘Barracuda’ which focuses heavily on the psychology of swimming and the influence of class on the psyche of sport in Australia. Some of the passages about the 2000 Sydney Olympics are compellingly critical of our national sporting obsessions. Highly recommend.

  7. Peter Fuller says:

    Phil & Stainless,
    I have enjoyed Brian Glanville’s writing on soccer and general sport (non-fiction as well as fiction for that matter). While much of his non-fiction is short story rather than novel length, he has produced quite a few books, often with an Italian setting.
    For anyone interested his wiki entry gives what seems to be a comprehensive bibliography.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Glanville

  8. Hi PD

    I’m glad you mentioned Oakley’s wonderful novel (and yes, the film is a stinker). Along with The Club, And The Big Men Fky as well as a couple of Bruce Dawe poems these 70s texts made a reasonable attempt to use footy as a way of making sense of the national identity.

    A friend and I took a sit-com idea about a local footy club to the ABC in the mid 90s. The comedy head at the time (and Sydney based) liked the premise but would not commit because he wondered if Australian Rules was of enough interest across Australia.

    Go figure.

  9. Thanks all for the suggestions.

    Rick – your story about the sit com is interesting. Surely if it’s good enough material, it shouldn’t matter if it’s about Aussie Rules or tiddlywinks. That presumably is the point about “This Sporting Life”. It stands the test of time because it’s good literature and appeals to people with no great interest in rugby.

  10. Interesting discussion. There is a lot of good fiction about the issues surrounding sport. I could not think of any about the playing of sport. There is very good non-fiction about playing sport, mainly in the form of the good autobiographies and memoirs. We touched on a lot of them on Iron Mike’s thread recently.
    Maybe its that elite sport is so tunnel visioned, and that a lack of self reflection (eg Warne, Ablett Snr, Carey in his playing days) and an outsized ego is often a requirement for playing success. But makes for a narcissistic central character in fiction with few sustaining relationships – makes plot development hard.
    However when it comes to the business surrounding sport – I can automatically think of Richard Ford’s meditative “The Sportswriter” and its two sequels. In Australia my seminal book is Frank Hardy’s faction “Power Without Glory” – sport, gambling, the Catholic Church and the Labor Party. What else is there to know?

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