Bruised and battered, STEVEN DOWNES reviews a local author’s new book which holds some painful memories
This weekend will properly demonstrate how sport can go from the sublime to the ridiculous, barely pausing for breath along the way. This evening, Chris Robshaw will lead out the England team at Murrayfield, the captaincy of his national side the apogee of a rugby player’s life.
The bar at Robshaw’s first club, Warlingham, will be packed with members, some of whom will have played earlier in the afternoon, and one or two who would have played alongside Robshaw when he was embarking on his rugby career at the age of seven.
But Warlingham takes a special pride in not only producing an England captain, but also being a real grassroots club. So, tomorrow lunchtime in the same clubhouse, there will be a launch party for a sports book that celebrates an unfit 40something novice player in the third worst team in Surrey.
Steven Gauge’s My Life As A Hooker must be a delight for publishers Summersdale in this age of easy-click sales via Amazon; the market for Belle de Nuit material remains vast. The market for comedy books about sport is somewhat smaller, though Gauge’s efforts deserve to correct that in the coming months.
The sub-title – “When a middle-aged bloke discovered rugby” – might put off the dirty mac brigade as they trawl the internet for a bit of semi-respectable porn (or even just for a semi).
But the sub-title also serves as a perfect summary of this autobiographical traipse through a rough and tumble approach to a mid-life crisis.
I ought to declare an interest. I am in this book. It is a fleeting appearance, in keeping with my brief display on a rugby pitch alongside Gauge. After my second match, I was persuaded not to play again, having myopically managed to concuss our team’s best player with the first headbutt of my life, it was suggested that I was too much of a danger to my own team.
I had been lured into thinking I could even contemplate taking to the rugby pitch by the personable Gauge, who happened to be coaching my younger lad in the under-12s on a Sunday morning. He somehow mentioned in passing that he spent his Saturday afternoons captaining the club’s 4th XV. The 4ths was a new side at Warlingham, set up by Gauge especially for those who, according to his own motto for the team, “don’t give a shit about being shit”. It sounded ideal.
Since Gauge’s rugby career has lasted a good deal longer than two games, he is able to recount life in the nether reaches of British sport. It is a world that is light years away from Premiership football, and pretty far removed even from life in Warlingham’s 1st XV in the ninth (or is it eighth?) rung of English rugby.
It is a much more real, and warm world, apart from Saturday afternoons in January, a world where most of the changing rooms have a unique odour, a bizarre mix of Wintergreen and diarrhoea which is guaranteed to make your eyes water – not a good look just before you run out to play in the rough and tumble world of fourth team rugby.
It is 50 years since Michael Green published his Art of Coarse Rugby, one of the rare sports comedy books that fulfilled both sides of its remit. That book made me laugh out loud, and Gauge’s book did so, too.
That might have something to do with Gauge’s descriptions of some of the local characters he had encountered along the way, some of whom Gauge has opted to change their names for the purposes of this book. If this has been done on the basis of libel advice of some sort, then Gauge had better engage another solicitor, because his descriptions of “Smudger” and a game of musical beds when on tour in Paris, or of referee “Hamish McKilt”, are hilariously recognisable, and thoroughly actionable.
Gauge has a tidy line in self-deprecation throughout the book, so the fact that he has been an (unsuccessful) LibDem candidate for Croydon Council, that he used to be chief executive of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, that he managed Nick Clegg’s campaign at the last general election, or that he once used the word “Existentialism” as a line-out call, get barely a mention.
And please do not be put off if you do not understand, let alone like, rugby. This is not a book exclusively for sports fans. This is less a book about sport, and more a book about dealing with life and managing some of the challenges along the way. All with a bit of rugby thrown in.
Indeed, Gauge decodes some of the arcane complexities of the game step by step, as he himself learned the game, sometimes painfully. So if you are new to the game and seeking a primer on the differences between a “maul” and a “ruck”, this may be just the beginner’s manual for you, with a few laughs along the way.
Humour, though, is a notoriously difficult thing to judge, and probably more difficult to write. So you may want to read this sample passage, about the aforementioned Scottish referee, to judge for yourself.
Very occasionally Hamish went the extra mile to ensure harmony on the pitch. In one game we were playing a side called London French. There are a number of sides in London with historical links to other countries or counties, including London Cornish and London Irish. Many others have links to schools and universities. But with falling player numbers most clubs will take anyone who wants to play regardless of nationality or old school tie.
London French’s lower side didn’t appear to have any French players whatsoever but Hamish refused to acknowledge this aberration. He took great pains to offer his judgements and rulings in both English and very poor sub O-level French. As his grumpiness grew throughout the game and his angry Glaswegian/ Gallic instructions grew louder and louder, he ended up shouting violently in fluent Franglais at the opposition captain: ‘Penalty pour les mains dans le ruck… Retournez dix metres maintenant or else c’est le sin bin pour vous.’
Eventually the London French skipper replied, ‘I’ve no idea what you are saying, mate, I’m from Fulham.’
In between providing media training for Macedonian political parties, Steven Gauge is still turning out for the Warlingham 4ths most Saturdays (on those occasions that they don’t need his boots to kit out an impecunious or careless scrum half).
But he’s no longer captain. It’s still far removed from the world of Chris Robshaw, but the team has been promoted two seasons running and are no longer the third worst team in Surrey.
However, I very much doubt that it is quite as much fun as depicted in My Life As A Hooker.
- My Life As A Hooker: When A Middle-Aged Bloke Discovered Rugby, by Steven Gauge (240pp), is published by Summersdale, priced £7.99
- Former Warlingham player Robshaw waits on England decision (insidecroydon.com)
- It’s scrum time for Ken, Boris… and for Brian Paddick (insidecroydon.com)
- VIDEO: England name Chris Robshaw as captain against Scotland, Six Nations 2012 (3news.co.nz)
- Chris Robshaw is just the man to lead England out of adversity (guardian.co.uk)