Thursday, December 30, 2010

Summer Reads: The Awa Book of NZ Sports Writing

Review by Mark Pirie of The Awa Book of New Zealand Sports Writing edited by Harry Ricketts, Awa Press, RRP $40.00.

Harry Ricketts released his book of New Zealand sports writing in June this year. I went along to the launch at Unity Books, Wellington. It was a full house. Writer and columnist Steve Braunias launched the book. I used to enjoy Steve’s football pieces when he was writing for the New Zealand Listener. At the launch, he told a story about his meeting with football writer Brian Glanville.
So, what will you get if you buy The Awa Book of New Zealand Sports Writing? Well, what you get is a carefully selected and highly personal compendium of national sports writing. It has an excellent introduction written by Harry himself. This book is the first of its kind since Lloyd Jones’ Into the Field of Play. Personal taste is definitely a hallmark of Harry’s selection. Harry is keen to capture odd as well as famous moments in New Zealand sport that convey a sense of literary craft as well as being memorable. Wit, humour and poignancy seem important. He has lifted various pieces from New Zealand sports books, newspapers, blogs, anthologies and biographies.
The oldest piece here is about canoe racing from The Nelson Examiner, 1843. Jeremy Coney’s snippet (from his autobiography The Playing Mantis) features Coney breaking his arm in the 1980s against the Windies - Joel Garner was the bowler. Brian Turner writes a poem for his brother during Glenn Turner’s difficult season in 1975/1976 (also included in A Tingling Catch). Other cricketing quirks are Hamish McDouall’s injury list for Chris Cairns used by Harry as a found poem.
Rugby and cricket are the most prominent. T.P. McLean, Keith Quinn, Chris Laidlaw, Greg McGee, Lloyd Jones and Spiro Zavos form the backline on rugby matches. Martin Crowe observes New Zealand’s semi-final cricket loss to Pakistan in the 1992 World Cup, and there are pieces by Joseph Romanos on New Zealand’s lowest Test innings total of 26, Lynn McConnell on New Zealand’s first Test victory in 1956 and Dick Brittenden on Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Blair during the Second Test against South Africa, 1953/54 season. Other sports featured are netball, racing, bowling, running, canoeing, swimming, mountaineering, fishing, yachting, boating, boxing, golf, aviation, archery, tennis, cycling, and soccer. Unfortunately, there is nothing here about rugby league or rowing. As Harry says, he ‘couldn’t find anything that was particularly memorable’.
Some of the best pieces in the book are by people one wouldn’t identify with a particular sport. Literary writers with much smaller audiences feature alongside big name sports writers and columnists from major dailies. Bill Sewell writes on Richard Pearse. Poet James Brown takes us to a child’s netball practice. You can sense the craftsmanship, with carefully chosen lines like: ‘Practice drizzles to a close’. Alongside conventional sports writing, poetry receives a fair amount of space. Bill Manhire has two racing poems, one very good poem on Phar Lap. Bub Bridger has a comic poem about wanting the Whetton brothers for Christmas. Pity the poem wasn’t better to really immortalise the Whetton brothers. Harry might’ve been better to have included one of his own cricket pieces in its place.
Overall, the great thing about this book is you can take it with you to sporting matches or on the airplane travelling. It’s the kind of book that’s perfectly designed for dipping into during the lunch breaks at Test matches or reading and storing at your summer bach. Not all the writing here is that memorable to me but I really like Harry's idea of a New Zealand book of sports writing as well as the range of sports on offer. Another editor might've picked an entirely different team, e.g. the cricket writing of Don Neely and Sir Richard Hadlee for instance. As Harry points out, 'You could probably assemble three or four parallel anthologies to this one without serious duplication’. Questions of personal taste aside, it’s nice to have a book like this to read, enjoy and return to in our leisure.

Review © Mark Pirie 2010

The Awa Book of NZ Sports Writing
edited by Harry Ricketts
(Awa Press: 2010)

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