Between having both a busy career and a young family, I don’t often have time for pleasure reading. However, as the day job took me solo to Italy recently, I was able to delve into a few books along the way. On book in particular – The Following Game by Jonathan Smith – captured my attention for several afternoons on the journey, and still has me thinking about it several days later.
Although The Following Game is, ostensibly, a cricket book, like any great sports literature it is about so much more. In part a travel memoir (the narrative is anchored by a trip to India, along with the author coming to grips with a cancer diagnosis) in many ways it is Smith’s autobiography, with cricket, poetry, his career as a teacher and author, and his relationship with his son Ed – a now-retired professional cricketer – as the vehicle for telling his story. It is very gently written, with Smith almost discovering the meaning of his life, work, and fandom along with the reader. It is leisurely in the best sense of the word, in so far as takes moments to breathe, to consider, to meander, and to reminisce. It is a wonderful and often deeply moving book.
However, one of the aspects I liked most was Smith’s use of the sports metaphor. Normally, I loathe sports metaphors (though, perhaps it is because I use them far too often in my own communication), but Smith does a masterful job of connecting cricket to life, to obsession, to the creative process, and to our own mortality. One passage in particular caught me, when Smith was lamenting the strange perversity of cricket – where it can be such an unfair game – did he draw a parallel between playing and the injustice of mortality (forgive, but I must quote at length):
If they had been born elsewhere, no doubt Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides would have been fans who understood the full horrors of the game, because only a Greek cricket follower would write ‘we are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward’, and Samuel Beckett was a cricketer, no surprises there, because only an Irish cricketer could write ‘you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’, you have no option, you just have to get on with it, we’re all born astride the grave, all innings must come to an end, we grow up only to die, all we can do is to keep the ball in play, to play the games of the mind and the body and the spirit and to keep playing and one day it will all be over.
Where’s the justice in that?
There isn’t any.
It just goes like that.
I can’t remember when it didn’t.
Similarly, he draws a parallel between batting and writing, where one must simply get out there and do it in order to accomplish anything:
I say to myself, however well you do, you cannot make runs if you are not at the crease. You cannot score runs in the practice nets, where extravagant shots tend to result in fantasy boundaries and fantasy triumphs – but carry the risk of dangerous self-delusion. Equally, you cannot write by talking about writing.
So…stop talking and sit down.
Pick up your pencil.
Or turn on your computer.
I suppose one’s reaction to a book is sometimes connected to a stage in one’s life. Much of the book is about the challenges Smith has in watching his son compete, and that I anticipate that I will probably share many of the same emotions if and when my son plays sports. I can certainly understand and appreciate as an academic the necessity to write and to not just “talk about writing” – particularly in the early stages of a career. And, being middle aged and having the first sense of my own mortality, I occasionally feel astride the grave. It’s not often that a book comes along at the right time – and, perhaps the timing of my reading it is colouring my reaction to it. However, beyond enjoying it and learning from it, I felt a stronger connection to it – somewhat in the same way when I first read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Like Hornby, many of the allusions Smith makes to particular matches and players are lost on me, but it is the wider lessons and truths – and how we try to understand our responses to them – that puts this book (at least for me) at a different level. If you can, do try and find it (particularly if you meet the middle-aged academic/sports fan with a family demographic).