In the early 1990s, Richard Williams knew Lynne Truss as a writer leading a finely balanced life in art and letters. She wrote with elegance, wit and grace. And then, in 1996 [the year of the European Football Championships, hosted by England], she turned up in ‚Äúthe human zoo‚Äù of the sporting press box one of half a dozen people Id least expect to see.
Thus Williams, chief sports writer of the Guardian, introduced the humorist in the Great Hall, Kings College, London, to talk about the publication of Get Her Off The Pitch!, her memoir of four years as an unlikely sports writer for The Times. As Truss herself acknowledges, being a middle-aged woman sports writer who didnt know much about sport was quite a challenge in many ways, but I was always aware that the material it gave me about sport, about gender, and about the difficulties of maintaining a sense of proportion was absolute dynamite.
Truss began by reading an excerpt about her trip to New York to report on the Lennox Lewis v Evander Holyfield fight in Madison Square Garden, a passage which made gloriously clear her new interest in sporting occasions sprung from anthropological curiosity. Hilariously, she told of her homework. She watched a film of the famous 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman Rumble in the Jungle fight Ali actually won the fight, and I really didnt see that coming. Diligently, the queen of comma usage read Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer and leafed through boxing magazines to prepare for the raw razzmatazz that is a Don King-orchestrated heavyweight exchange of blows.
Of course the faux-na√Øve approach, in which she casts herself as a sensitive soul, inspired reams of reports written with elegance, wit and grace. Cheerfully, she recalled how her presence and tone irritated some new colleagues and bemused others, such as the chap from the Sun who glowered when asked to escort her to her car parked in Stygian gloom in a backstreet somewhere in the vicinity of Everton Football Club.
But her personal tragedy was her writerly advantage. Women in press boxes are not a great rarity. Women who know zero about sport are a great rarity, she said. I enjoyed the fact that everyone knew more about it than me. I could make jokes. The running gag with the sportsdesk was ‚ÄúThere is a fact in this piece today‚Äù.
If Truss began by bringing her acute observational skills to bear on the obsessive followers of sport, it was only a matter of weeks before she became a tad involved herself. There is no time to disengage yourself from the passion of the sporting theatre when you have to file your copy on the final whistle. On the night England went out of the European Football Championships, Truss received a message from Libby Purves: Its only a game, Lynne.
How did sports writing change her life? I joined part of a culture that I didnt know about, and its irreversible, she said. Sport is a large part of peoples lives. I became quite obsessed. Id go to the theatre and couldnt sit still because no one reacts. Henry V at the Globe! Whats wrong with these people? Sport was displacing a lot of other things. I was getting things out of proportion. I saw a headline ‚ÄúAdams in talks‚Äù and presumed it was Tony Adams, the Arsenal footballer, not Gerry…
The issue of sports writing as literature was mooted from the floor. Truss suggested that the instantaneous nature and the sheer volume of shrewdly-angled pieces across all media outlets made it difficult for pieces to stand the test of time. Boxing, however, always spawns powerful scenarios as her own funny and perceptive anecdotes prove, too.
Sarah Edworthy is the author of Jenson Button: My Championship Year