February 6, 2013

Frank Keating and the art of grace and affection

They don't make them like him anymore; blame the nature of modern sports media

Tomorrow we'll bid our rheumy-eyed goodbyes - as our fond farewellee might have put it in his affectionate, blushless, inimitable way. The venue, Belmont Abbey, a Benedictine monastery east of the Welsh border, is a Victorian monument to a medieval order: an apt final resting place for a sportswriter whose cosmopolitan nous was embedded in the fertile soil of history. No journalist ever immersed himself quite so thoroughly in the lessons of all our yesterdays as Frank Keating.

Frank was lucky. He picked up his painterly brush in a less critical era, before technology turned Planet Sport into a goldfish bowl and made cynical, half-knowing bustards of us all. Yes, he worked in TV, but long before it made Johnny-Come-Latelys of the press. And yes, he suffered increasingly from nostalgia, the hallucinatory sickness that prevents us from seeing, and appreciating, the way we are. Then again, by the time he vacated the press box, the way we were had changed so rapidly, so drastically, so unnervingly.

Still, he recognised that enduring and defining truth: as the 21st century kicked off, sport not only supplied our joybringers-in-chief, it was also, if not the ultimate meritocracy, then the closest approximation we could reasonably wish for - and far closer than it was in his youth, when gents and players occupied different dressing rooms and shamateurs reigned. What made him so special, so inspirational, was not so much those daring experiments with language but that capacity to locate the resplendent in the present.

Witness High, Wide And Handsome, his incomparable account of Ian Botham's slam-bang summer of 1985. Written when Frank was nearing 50, the final words distil to perfection spectator sport's singular power to unite classes, creeds, races and ages: "We would not forget him even if we could [and could not forget if we would], as morning after morning the summer's sun rose for him and he went forth and trod fresh grass - and the expectant, eager cry was sent about the land: Botham's In!"

If one passage can tell you everything you need to know about its author, the description of his favourite catch does, and handsomely. At Brisbane in 1985, Richard Hadlee had gobbled down Australia's first eight wickets when Geoff Lawson sliced a drive…

"The great man hared around to get beneath the steepler. He could have half-tripped, pretended to lose sight of it in the sun, fallen over or, dammit, just let the thing pop out of his hands after a gallant try. But Hadlee made ground and, on the run, dashingly held the catch to give Brown his first Test wicket - and also, in that one act, to deny himself all ten." Here was the "no-I-in-team" ethic personified; here was nobility.

Sure, Frank had his bêtes noir - racism, greed and privilege, killjoys, snobs and cheats. And when he let fire, he emptied both barrels, hunting for the brighter, the fairer, the nobler. Unafraid to rave, he was also a spinner of fabulist fables underpinned by a deeper truth: Aesop meets the Brothers Grimm. Embroidery was his schtick, but he still nailed the social value of the competitive arts - and hence their timeless allure - a darned sight more regularly than those ain't-the-world-irredeemably-rotten cynics for whom graceless carping, skin-deep psychoanalysis and deepest greenest envy are now the numbing norm.

Will another writer ever be so willing to salute the awe and the ooh and the aah of sport, the electricity and the humanity; the way, even now, even in the age of naked professionalism, it celebrates courage, invention and style, mateship and manners, self-sacrifice and honour? Barring the extinction of TV, it's bloody hard to picture it.

When I met Frank 30 springs ago, it was newspapers that counted, newspapers that brought aces, cuts and putts into the lives of those for whom being there was impractical. For his generation that meant being salesman, celebrant, critic and campaigner. Now they transmit every ball, as it happens; broadcasters rule the roost. Yet because their function is to sell the game with whose ringmasters they have forged such an unholy alliance, they narrow the view. Call them the new romantics. Those who survived the heyday of Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran will know this is not an unmitigated compliment.

Video killed most of the radio stars but live TV murdered romance on the sports pages. By bringing goals, tries and sixes to millions, and to sports desks where editors and sub-editors were closer to the action than those on the spot, the magic began to dissolve; so, to a greater extent, did reliance on the reporter's word, and hence the licence to embroider. True, this was a boon, especially to the delivery of fact. The downside was a knee-jerk reaction to broadcasting's more blinkered salesmanship: a greater desire for interpretation and consequence than action. No bad thing at all. Sadly, what excited reporters and fuelled their descriptive skills became secondary.

The generation gap has never helped. Even for the hardiest and most idealistic of hacks, the older one gets and the higher one ascends the greasy pole, the harder it is to empathise with one's subjects, for sportswriters above all media breeds. Our subjects have the lot: youth and fully functioning bodies, dreams and future - everything we're losing. As we age and they remain in their teens and 20s, so we increasingly hark back to reminders of our youth, our dreams, our future.

We're the Peter Pans of wordsmithery, surfing the tides of time and fashion. Trouble is, beyond the compromised world of PR, trumpeting the good as relief from the bad is no longer hip. Innocence isn't the only price we pay for maturity: in the pursuit of wisdom, have we traded in the wonder that first spurred us to do what we do?

The antidote, nonetheless, lies largely with those editors. Their mantra is plain: leave it to TV to cover the oohs and aahs - give us the whys and the why nots, the what nows and the who's nexts. Regrettably, today's hacks have decreasing access to the players because the players trust the broadcasters infinitely more. Producers and eager mic-thrusters portray them in the best possible light, media-trained utterances presented as intended - unedited, unchallenged, religiously uncontroversial.

Exacerbated by the ever-expanding chasm in earnings, the distance between players and scribblers is growing by the season. Tweets are the new quotes. One-on-one interviews, once the norm - particularly for those at what John Lennon would have called the toppermost of the poppermost - are scarce and fleeting; as with film critics, a gaggle will share the same words and the same pauses in the same order, every syllable approved and recorded by a PR flunky, manager or agent - the better to control perceptions. Even Frank, a man for all seasons, might have become a nauseating in-my-dayer.

Embroidery was his schtick, but Keating still nailed the social value of the competitive arts - and hence their timeless allure - regularly

How he thrived on those one-on-ones. They heightened that natural affection, stirred the novelist in him, the verbal wizard. If he took liberties - and boy, did he take liberties, albeit harmless ones - no one he transported from pitch to page complained. Nor did his readers, a band so numerous that, in one TV ad for the Guardian, that luxuriantly larynxed thespian Peter Ustinov read out one of Frank's columns.

If he depicted players in a more articulate, humble and loveable, even Keatingesque light - who cared? He knew they were imperfect, that they cut corners and swung lead like the rest of us, but he also knew they could do what we could never do; that what they felt - if not their precise mode of expression - was the sauce that flavoured the meatiness of their labours. If Frank could be accused of fantasising them, he also humanised them. They weren't gods but nor were they monsters. Sure, he craftily crammed them into his own template for heroism, but such truth-bending was founded on an unswerving belief that this was what his job primarily entailed: understanding and celebrating the architects of modern wonderment.

So what can be done? The last thing I want my students to do is to revive those sepia-distorted days when every opener walked (hah!) and sledging was something you only did in the snow (hah!). I want them to see through all that PR fluff and puffery, pursue the full story, hound the frauds and pariahs, expose and right the wrongs. I also want them to savour - and thus convey - the visual beauty and dramatic intensity of a save, tackle or catch, the spiritual upliftment of the stunning debut, the startling comeback and underdog-bites-back.

Sport does this stuff best because, unlike novels and plays and movies, it's fact not fiction (so long as we can trust eyes and motives). Revelling in the exploits of sportsfolk means admiring those who confront real pain and real humiliation. That's why governments and billionaires and broadcasters throw so much dosh at the best reality show in town. Orwell was only half-right: elite sport is war minus the shooting and the generals on the hill. The highest earners are on the frontline.

Frankly, then, this column can be tweeted down to a single heartfelt plea to every sports editor out there who has relished skewering Lance: keep crucifying the villains but put the glory back up there with the gory, the groans and the gossip. In pursuing truth, let it be meaningful truth. Don't mistake winners for gods, losers for failures or flaws for monstrosities. Let's be gracious out there. Let's be generous out there.

Asked if, at 75, he'd rather give up watching movies or sport, Woody Allen's reply was as instant as it was succinct: movies. Sport still thrills.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton