Mark Lawson on the William Hill Sports Book of the Year
As the winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year is announced, novelist, critic and journalist Mark Lawson, celebrates the shortlist and revels in his role as one of this year's judges.
Although rules are an important part of any sport, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year is paradoxically the literary award that gives the judges and referees most leeway.
In my time, I have helped to choose most major UK prizes for writing - including the Man Booker, Costa and the David Cohen Prize - and, in all of them, there is a tendency to prefer, officially or unofficially, a certain sort of book or author.
But, this year, finally being included in the William Hill Sports Book of the Year squad - a call-up about which I had fantasised as fervently as a school student hoping to play for their nation one day - I was confirmed in the belief suggested by reading or reporting on previous shortlists: that this prize is genuinely open to all kinds of writing - novel, biography, memoir, history - and to any sport.
Of our seven 2016 contenders, two concern football, with one representative each from horse-racing, swimming, cricket and athletics. All of those events are commonplaces of back-page reporting, but the seventh book - Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan - covers what is arguably not a sporting discipline at all, a view which, in one passage in the book, the author himself supports. One long-serving judge made the startling point that no previous shortlisted book contained so little competitive sport, as the writer is usually on a personal quest against some desired wave in a particular place.
Finnegan, though, is always competing against the sea and himself, and so the book deals with the pursuit of physical and psychological perfection that is one of the core subjects of the award. The same applies to another solo competitor who features this year: Diana Nyad, whose Find a Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life describes her successive attempts, up until the age of 64, to swim the shark and jellyfish-infested waters between Florida and Cuba.
But, as this year’s selection also shows, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year acknowledges that failure is also part of the sporting story. Oliver Kay’s Forever Young reconstructs the short career and early death of Adrian Doherty, a brilliant but eccentric member of the Giggs generation at Manchester United, who fell out of (and out of love with) the game due partly to injury but also perhaps because of some inner absence.
And a cricketer who died tragically young and personally and professionally unfulfilled, Peter Roebuck, is the subject of Chasing Shadows by Tim Lane and Elliott Cartledge, which seeks to explain how a talented Somerset batsman fell out with county (over Viv Richards and Ian Botham) and country (following an embarrassing court case) before ending up dead on the awning of a South African hotel after a visit from sex crime police.
Intriguingly, Chasing Shadows has faced twin attacks: from members of the Roebuck family, who consider it too intrusive and hostile, and rival investigative journalists, who accuse it of sanitising aspects of the events. We, though, could only judge the story we were given, and it is drainingly captivating.
A notable trend among the seven 2016 contenders is that - at a time when sports stars can have been the subject of many books by their early 20s - is that the Czech runner Emil Zatopek, remembered in Endurance by Rick Broadbent, is the only one of the subjects to have become a sporting celebrity.
Many readers of these books will be introduced for the first time to Roebuck, Finnegan, Nyad and Doherty, while Mr Darley’s Arabian by Chris McGrath is a sort of equine-DNA biography - tracing the bloodline of wonder-horse Frankel through two centuries of history - and Rory Smith’s Mister brings to attention the English football managers who worked influentially in foreign countries long before more fabled exports such as Terry Venables and Roy Hodgson.
Judging any literary prize reminds you that a book has two essential elements - content and style - and, if only one of those is present, the volume is likely to disappoint. We had to decide between considerable feats of research - McGrath, Kay, Smith and Lane / Cartledge have all made discoveries previously unpublished - and titles in which the motor was their prose: Barbarian Days was honoured in America’s most prestigious literary awards, the Pulitzers, and its surfing subject-matter attracted the attention of the Hawaii-born (whatever some Donald Trump supporters have tried to claim) President Obama for his summer reading-list.
Presented in late November, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year has come to play an important role in solving the problem of what to give sports-loving relatives for Christmas. Since I alerted some cousins of mine to the shortlist, my Uncle George may well have become convinced that Santa Claus has some sort of sponsorship deal with the prize. He and many others, though, will be well served this year if the William Hill Sports Book of the Year list is used as Santa’s little helper.
And, for me, being one of the judges was Christmas come early. The winner is a worthy choice from a shortlist that veteran judges felt to be of exceptionally high quality.