Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Ernest and The Boxer by “The Boxer”
The Boxer reflects on what he has learned from Ernest Hemingway.
"We won the first with half of the money that we had to spend and he paid 12-1, jumping beautifully, taking command on the far side of the course and coming in four lengths ahead. We saved half of the money and put it away and bet the other half on the second horse who broke ahead, led all the way over the hurdles and on the flat just lasted to the finish line with the favourite gaining on him with every jump and the two whips flailing. We went for a glass of champagne at the bar under the stand and waited for the prices to go up. “My, racing is very hard on people,” my wife said. “Did you see that other horse come up on him.” The horses came by, ours wet with his nostrils working wide to breathe and the jockey patting him.
“Poor him,” my wife said. “We just bet.”" (A Moveable Feast)
Ernest Hemingway began work as a reporter for the Kansas City Star in 1917 at the age of 18. He resigned from journalism seven years later to write fiction but throughout his career maintained the key journalistic skill of being able to entertain and inform.
Of the many things I have taken from Hemingway’s style is the importance of incorporating a unique viewpoint when writing about everyday experiences. An example of this is shown in the above piece where a couple are in a racecourse champagne bar immediately after winning a large sum of money. They speak of how hard the race was on their nerves before seeing the exhausted winning horse which puts their feelings into context.
The extract above appeared in 1936 and the ability to give a unique viewpoint to an everyday occurrence is as valuable today as it was over 70 years ago.
Hemingway’s sports-writing pieces were informative and to the point. He described Enghein Racecourse, situated outside of Paris, as the ‘small pretty and larcenous track that was the home of the outsider’. In twelve words he has relayed information that is helpful to the newcomer, informative to the expert and interesting to all and this is a fine example of a style that I have strived for over the past two years. It is very easy to presume a reader’s knowledge and this can make an article difficult to understand but the balance must be maintained to ensure fresh information is given for the more knowledgeable spectator’s benefit.
Equally the ability to quickly catch a reader’s attention while relaying the sense and pace of an event is a key aspect of sports-writing and is something I have consciously worked towards; and to this end Hemingway’s boxing writing has helped me immensely:
"The gong rang and Jack turned quick and went out. Walcott came towards him and they touched gloves and as soon as Walcott dropped his hands Jack jumped his left into his face twice…Walcott was after him, going forward all the time with his chin on his chest". (Men without Women)
On a practical level, and without exception, I start every piece of writing by using Hemingway’s mantra of beginning with ‘one true sentence,’ and when writing longer pieces I try as much as possible to ‘always stop when there is [still] something there.’
Emotion is a key aspect of competitive sports and consequently sports reporting and Hemingway was notable for his ability to accurately relay others’ emotions and the characteristics that become apparent in the exultance of victory or defeat’s despair:
"My wife had a horse one time at Auteuil named Chevre d’Or that was 120-1 and leading by 20 lengths when he fell at the last jump with enough savings on him to keep us for six months. We tried never to think of that. She had cried for the horse, I remembered, but not the money". (A Moveable Feast)
As a writer he was very aware of his own limitations and believed you should write ‘what [you] know about truly and care for the most,’. While this statement may seem idealistic in this competitive age I do believe the knowledge that comes from research – and an ongoing love of a sport – will shine through and become the article’s foundation.
Hemingway believed he could write about all sports but that he should not as he did not possess the required knowledge. For this reason he rarely wrote of cycle racing, which he enjoyed, as he felt the quality of his writing could not relay the sport’s essence:
"I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the roads. But I will get the Velodrome d’Hiver with the smoky light of the afternoon and the whirring sound the tires made on the wood as the riders passed, the effort and the tactics as the riders climbed and plunged, each one a part of his machine". (A Moveable Feast)
A sportswriter must avoid excessive supposition and exercise sound judgement on what is appropriate to report and what is not; and Hemingway, an enthusiastic and reportedly successful gambler, mixed regularly with horse trainers and jockeys in the 1930s when doping was rife. He maintained his journalistic equilibrium by keeping a ‘tight rein’ on hypothesis and overt speculation and reported accurately while avoiding mentioning specific instances or individuals.
‘You had to watch a jumping race from the top of the stands at Auteuil… to see what each horse did and see what horse might have won and did not, and see why or maybe how he did not do what he could have done. You watched the prices and all the shifts of odds each time a horse you were following would start.’ (A Moveable Feast)
In common with current writers Hemingway very often wrote of his personal experiences and day to day situations. His ability to do this was startling given that he was often writing of emotive subjects – such as widespread horse doping. He had the ability to stay true to journalism’s code of ethics; seemly remaining distant from his subject while creating an intimate relationship with the reader that was often almost disturbing in its familiarity:
"I had wanted to go to the races very badly. But at this time I could not afford to go to the races, even though there was money to be made there if you worked at it. It was the days before saliva tests and other methods of detecting artificially encouraged horses and doping was very extensively practiced. But handicapping beasts that are receiving stimulants, and detecting the symptoms in the paddock and acting on your perceptions, which sometimes bordered on the extra sensory, then backing them with money you cannot afford to lose, is not the way for a young man supporting a wife and child to get ahead in the full time job of learning to write prose". (A Moveable Feast)
Undoubtedly the craft of sports writing has changed significantly since the 1930s but I believe that Hemingway’s sports writing skills have stood the test of time. His ability to entertain factions of sports fans with vastly different knowledge levels undoubtedly remains at the heart of good sports reporting. So too, does his ability to maintain journalism’s theoretical balance of what should be done against how it is practised. The above examples of reporting accurately whilst maintaining his subject’s freedom and confidentiality are just an example of how this talented reporter, renowned author and skilled sportswriter maintained journalism’s code of practice.
Hemingway ended Death in the Afternoon (his ‘exhaustive account’ of bullfighting) with an epilogue that I feel is appropriate here. It is his account of a piece of work, such as this, that has been completed but where the author felt he had so much more to say:
‘If I could have made this enough of a book,’ he began, ‘I would have had everything in it. The Prado, looking like some big American college building, with sprinklers watering the grass…’ (Death in the Afternoon)
at 4:15 PM