A lot of people have taken the time to be very kind about this weblog of late, and I’m humbled and gratified. Thankyou. Of course, into the room with it alongside the blushes and stammers comes a familiar figure; neckless, skinheaded, wearing white shoes and a romper suit over the tattoos – writer’s block. I have absolutely no idea what to say at the moment, and I am staring into a white screen feeling thousands of eyes at my back.
That doesn’t just happen to people who write every day. It’s a sportsman’s paradise, too, this sudden burst of social phobia and judgement-fear. How many training-ground heroes have there been, unable to carry that into what commentators airily call the “arena” and what can to some personalities feels mightily like one as they run out onto it, realising as they do that not everybody can be lions.
But this is writer’s block, and I won’t be able to tell you about it. But I’m thinking all the time about that running theme in A.N.Wilson’s biography of Betjeman, the fear of discovery, of exposure. It can strike you at any time, as it’s struck me now, and at the most unexpected of moments. Not, I find, in front of a television camera: the lens just can’t frighten you as much as an intelligent reader with their own, more widely-read weblog cocked in their hand. Nor in front of a live audience. Not where you’d expect. This is from Gideon Haigh’s Game for Anything:
For the Second Test at Lord’s, England picked a batsman called A.J. Evans: a good player, and a courageous man. As a pilot during the Great War, he’d won the Military Cross and bar. As a POW, he’d organised escape attempts of such reckless derring-do that he’d been persuaded to pen a book, The Escaping Club, describing how his mother had sent him maps and compasses concealed inside cakes and jars of anchovy paste. But on the day of his Test debut, a team-mate remembered: ‘He was so nervous that he could hardly hold his bat, and his knees were literally knocking together… His nerve had gone and the first straight ball was enough for him.’
Readers of George Macdonald Fraser will remember Flashman musing on much the same situation, reflecting that the true fear and horror of walking out to the wicket lay in the fact that you were sure to survive to face whatever humiliation your performance compiled for you whereas at least in war there was the chance of being killed. Which makes me wonder whether England would have faired better in the Ashes had we been up against Jezail rifles instead of Warne and McGrath. At worst, it would have been a new challenge, and it did Dr. Watson no harm.
That other famous sportsman of literature, Tony Cascarino, put the whole experience down quite superbly. This is from Full Time:
I’ve scored and played brilliantly one week and gone out and been awful the next, purely because some negative thought has hijacked me. I’ve tried to change and purge the doubt but it has always been in there, always been part of me. It was Graham Taylor at Aston Villa who noticed it first. He didn’t know me from Adam when he signed me from Millwall, but within a few weeks he had identified my weakness. ‘I want you to see a sports psychologist,’ he said, one morning after training. ‘You should be much more confident about who you are and what you want to be. I can’t believe you’re so negative in your approach.’ A few weeks later he was offered the England job and I never followed it up. Would ‘therapy‘ have made a difference? Perhaps, but I was quite immature at the time and wouldn’t have been prepared to open up. We all know what happens in the psychiatrist’s chair. Tell me about your childhood. What sort of man was your dad? Tell me about the voice and when you first heard it. The prodding and probing of the secret corners, the paring away of the layers until your vulnerability is exposed…
And then, this, which might explain his reference there to “the voice.” In 1984, Cascarino had heard… what? at Priestfield (Gillingham’s ground) during the visit of Everton in the FA Cup. With Cascarino on the halfway line, and all the Everton players in Gillingham’s half, the ball was played up to him leaving him with only Neville Southall to beat:
‘Quiet! We’re holding our breath.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m the eight-year-old boy in row twelve. I’m Bill from Bromley and Steve from Sidcup, who haven’t missed a game for fifteen years. I’m Keith Peacock and Steve Bruce and Old Buster Collins the sponge man. I’m the voice of every Gillingham supporter in the ground, desperately hoping you’ll take this chance but worried you’ll fuck up.’
‘Thanks for the vote of confidence.’
‘Don’t mention it. Just take your time and think about it for a moment.’
‘You’re thirty yards clear.’
‘I’m aware of that.’
‘There’s only the keeper to beat.’
‘Any striker worth his salt will put this ball in the net.’
‘This is your big chance.’
‘It’s not as easy as it looks, you know.’
‘You’re shitting yourself, aren’t you?’
‘You’re going to miss.’
‘You’re going to make a bollocks of it.’
Southall started to feint and fidget… I was almost close enough but couldn’t figure him out… Panic was clouding my brain like a fog… He narrowed the angle and stood his ground… Impulsively I reached for the trigger and kicked an awful shot that almost dribbled into his hands.
‘You clumsy fucking twat.’
‘You gave him the ball!’
‘I know but…’
‘You literally presented it to him.’
‘Yeah, did you hear the gasp in the crowd? I want to bury myself.’
‘I’ve seen some misses in my time but that was different class.’
‘But look on the bright side – you’re a household name.’
‘They’ll be showing repeats of it for years.’
On those rare occasions when I’ve bumped into the Everton manager, Howard Kendall, since, he smiles and reminds me of the night I saved his job.
Better days would come (along with the exposure of his vulnerability):