Monday, July 2, 2012

Book review: Over Time, by Frank Deford

Frank Deford talks of his work Over Time not as a memoir but a we-moir, a collation of transient connections with figures more famous than himself. When asked to write a piece for alma mater Sports Illustrated about his early days at the United States' foremost sports magazine, he initially resisted; but as it became obvious there was a desire for a Mad Men style homage to the golden age of US magazines, no-one was in a better position to detail those salad days of the sixties.

Were you to boil down Deford's style to a single adjective, it would be wry. He is observant yet economical, distilling major events and people into their vital alchemy and transmitting what he absorbs with a pleasant mix of good humour and gravitas. He has used the same affable style for fifty years, through books, editorials and myriad essays; the result is four-hundred-odd pages of brilliant simple statements. In fact, Deford writes with vision and simplicity that makes readers often think “Why didn't I see it that way before?”

This geniality is only magnfied by an attitude of supreme moderation. Deford is a sporting centreist – as he proves with his weekly NPR commentaries – well aware of the unique position sport occupies in our cultural landscape. At a recent speech at the Seattle Public Library, he suggested both the import and triviality of sport by announcing the only two unnecessary cultural phenomena developed individually by every people have been sport and religion.

Acutely aware of his position as an observer rather than newsmaker, he presents his life journey quite superficially and bases his experiences around those in public life who were attracting the same attention. Where he writes about personal matters, it is almost entirely in regard to his artisanship, or concerning the athletes were the root source of his material and observations. A perfect example comes from one of the work's final chapters where he talks with shark Jimmy the Greek about their shared loss – children lost to Cystic Fibrosis.

This isn't your typical me-me-me book, detailing “my struggle against the odds” or a list of accomplishments made more impressive when taken out of context. Deford freely admits to benefiting from luck and the era in which he got his start. His writing is about his profession, rather than himself and as such you find yourself knowing less of the man than you would choose; no doubt Deford prefers this way. He revels in what he has seen throughout his career, being able to witness the triumph and despair that's inherent at any sport; at the same time however the career is obviously only part of the man.

However, because his scope spans five decades, he really does no more than touch upon so many of the topics that could conceivably sell Over Time: these are anecdotes of his time observing sport, rather than his opinions. The stories are personal and not hearsay; a particular example being when he caught a train with a young Muhammad Ali and found him searching for spiritual and emotional understanding, exploring that which would make him controversial. In this manner, his writing on Arthur Ashe is sad but upbeat and the reader absorbs Deford's patent respect for the great tennis player.

As a text for aspiring sportswriters it has no definite teaching points, or at least very few. Deford's lack of personal conceit contributes to this somewhat; his belief is that writing is something you can or can't do, something rarely learned well. This seems partially a cover for such a humble man about whom his craft agrees that he is the patrician.

While there are few absolute commandments, the aspiring blogosphere would do well to heed his obvious breadth of vision. The value of a broad intake of news and views is tacitly suggested, as being well-rounded provides writers with the ability to place sport and the context from which stories emerge into a more global spectrum.

It's a wonderful piece of writing. But from Frank Deford, would you expect anything else?

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