And then there’s Lynne Truss the sportswriter.
I remember being surprised when Lynne Truss started to turn up on the sports pages in 1996. Not as surprised as she was, apparently. In May 1996 the sports editor of The Times invited Truss to join the team covering Euro ’96, the biggest feast of international football held in England since the 1966 World Cup, and an event the existence of which she was, at that point, unaware.
Truss speculates that she was seen as “a trundling wooden horse freighting a few new readers into the sports section”. No doubt the expectation was for nothing more than for a few columns of light relief among pages of serious football analysis. If so, it was a considerable underestimate of a writer who, a few short years later, would have the intelligentsia of the English-speaking world whooping with joy over semi-colons and parentheses. Compared to that, getting a few laughs out of blokes in lurid shirts chasing a ball about was like asking Michelangelo to distemper the ceiling.
The result was so pleasing that her foray into the sports pages was extended into the following domestic football season, and from there her range spread, embracing everything from world heavyweight title fights at Madison Square Garden to the Ryder Cup and (her favourite) the World Darts Championship. She recalls her experiences in Get Her Off the Pitch!, her memoir of her press box years, which I have just finished.
Her presence was not always welcomed by the hacks of the sports pages, though she took to cricket writers more easily than many of the others:
cricket writers are generally quite tall, very amusing [I recognise myself already], a bit Aspergers [ah...], and well informed on highbrow topics like art and music [well, up to a point].She puts the hostility she encountered down to simple misogyny, but I think that it was because they’d read her stuff and were annoyed that, though she might know about 1% of what they did about their sport, she could still write about it better than they could.
Take her account of the Cricket World Cup semi-final between South Africa and Australia at Edgbaston in 1999 (the one where Allan Donald forgets to run so handing the match to Aussie). She describes the events of the day perfectly adequately. But she also captures the increasing tension as only a very few could, still in her deceptively conversational style:
Six balls left in this semi-final. Nine runs required. The contents of our brains are starting to dribble out of our noses. I am pressing wads of tissue to all the orifices of my head. Fleming bowls to Klusener, and he smashes it as if he were playing baseball. It’s a four. A four! All one can do is whimper, watch it fly, absorb the cheering, and keep trusting the Kleenex.Truss admits her ignorance about cricket freely. When she took her place in the Headingley press box for the Ashes test of 1997 she had to ask what all the talk of “Headingley 1981” was about.* She may not understand cricket (she is heavily dependent on the radio commentary to make any sense of what she witnesses), but she gets it completely:
But the main reason I could never feel comfortable about cricket is that there is clearly no substitute for a lifetime of enthusiasm. It can’t be faked or mugged up, no matter how many times you pick up CLR James or Neville Cardus...This stuff has to go deep, you see.And:
One of the attractions of cricket, surely, is that it requires a lot of thinking about afterwards. In fact it’s a sport that largely takes place after it’s finished, in the splendid and reassuring comfort of the inside of one’s head.I don’t think it could be put better than that.
Lynne Truss gave up sport for punctuation when she concluded that she had no capacity for the massive recall of obscure facts that sports journalists and fans have, and that her emotional memory (“the sturdy means by which I navigate my life”) got in the way.
It’s touchingly simple. One week you are a Spurs Fan so devoted to Dimitar Berbatov that you get the Bulgarian national flag tattooed across your face; and the next week, when he’s signed to Manchester United, you go out and buy a balaclava. You don’t dwell on it, that’s the main thing. You might shout "Judas!" at him on his first re-visit, but then you let it go. I suppose you are too happily occupied recollecting every Leicester-Liverpool score since the dawn of football. Or maybe you are too busy studying a straggly frond in your goldfish bowl for the hundredth time today and saying "Blimey, that’s attractive. Is it new?”.
If you get the chance to read anything by Lynne Truss, take it, even if it means ransacking her dustbin for old shopping lists.
*England’s most famous test victory against Australia. Australians who saw it have “Headingley ’81” engraved on their hearts as Mary Tudor did "Calais".