London Sports Writing Festival Lights Up Lord’s

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Is sports writing a literary genre that we take for granted? That was the question being debated for the past four days, as the inaugural London Sports Writing Festival (LSWF) took place at Lord’s.

Sports personalities have congregated at the Home of Cricket to launch not just the arrival of their books in stores across the country, but to challenge the perception that sportsmen and women cannot be classed as literary.

Those in attendance were treated to a myriad of discussions across a wide range of sports from an enviable pool of speakers.

These included British rower and 2012 Olympic gold medallist Katherine Grainger, England rugby World Cup winner Matt Dawson and experienced football manager, Neil Warnock, among many others.

Rebecca Winfield, co-founder of the event, alongside fellow literary agent David Luxton, told me of the event’s origins and the reason behind the creation of a festival entirely devoted to sports writing.

‘The idea started in January 2012, when David and I lamented the fact that, although there were lots of literary festivals happening around the United Kingdom, there were not many opportunities for sports writing to be showcased.’

 Now that the event has drawn to a close, the literary agents will be determined to make the LSWF a regular fixture on the literary festival calendar – and provided the event’s partners have been convinced of sports writing’s growing demand, Winfield believes this can become a reality. 

‘The hope is that Lord’s and the MCC will feel that the event has worked very well for them to broaden out their base, and that they will feel there is enough of an audience.”

Now that the event has drawn to a close, the literary agents will be determined to make the LSWF a regular fixture on the literary festival calendar – and provided the event’s partners have been convinced of sports writing’s growing demand, Winfield believes this can become a reality.

‘The hope is that Lord’s and the MCC will feel that the event has worked very well for them to broaden out their base, and that they will feel there is enough of an audience.’

Due to unforeseen circumstances, there were one or two guests who were unable to fulfil their commitments of speaking at the festival.

On the Thursday, British & Irish Lions tour-winning captain Sam Warburton was in line to speak alongside Matt Dawson and Brian Moore, but his late withdrawal made for a somewhat diluted discussion on what has been a glorious year for British rugby.

Similarly, the closing event to the festival on Sunday, ‘Project Rainbow’ – the name given to Rod Ellingworth’s book that details the four-year plan to make Mark Cavendish a World Cycling Champion – was regrettably shorn of David Millar’s presence, a British national road champion who resurrected his career having been banned for two years on the admittance of taking a banned substance in 2004.

Both these guests would have certainly added extra panache to the otherwise excellent talks, and despite the contributions of those who were present, some of the audience might have come away feeling short-changed by the absence of the aforementioned sports personalities still plying their trade.

Furthermore, the last day was overshadowed by a family bereavement for the speaker of ‘Andy Murray: The Real Story’, which understandably resulted in the talk being cancelled.

Indeed, Winfield told me that enticing speakers to a first-time event was one of the biggest challenges she faced in putting on the festival.

‘One of the difficulties that I think every literary festival organiser has, is that we have to establish in the mind, not just of publishers, but also sportsmen and women – and their agents – that we are a serious concern, and that we can bring a big enough audience to the party’.

It was for this reason that, at a time when many sporting celebrities are releasing autobiographies, the LSWF was over-looked by some as a platform on which to promote their material.

‘One or two of the bigger names felt that perhaps Cheltenham or Hay [festivals] were better bets for them than this year’s festival.’

Despite such obstacles, the event’s organisers will certainly look back on Friday as being a resounding success, when football took centre stage.

In addition to Neil Warnock’s musings on the daily running of a football club (‘The Gaffer: Trials and Tribulations of a Football Manager’), Anthony Clavane, journalist and author of the bestselling homage to his beloved Leeds United, ‘Promised Land’ and the more recent ‘Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?’, was joined on the sofa by out-going PFA Chairman, Clarke Carlisle, Arsenal Ladies and England’s all-time record goalscorer, Kelly Smith, and former England and Tottenham Hotspur centre-back, Ledley King.

There was barely time to reflect on the startling symmetry of the trio’s injury-blighted careers before Evening Standard columnist Patrick Barclay (‘The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman’) was joined by fellow authors of Arsenal FC to discuss the club’s greatest figures.

This preceded a battle of gladiatorial proportions between Spanish football writers, Sid Lowe (‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga’) and Graham Hunter (‘Barça: The Greatest Team in the World’), in which Matt Dickinson had the onerous task of chairing the two ‘El Clasico’ aficionados as they discussed whether it was Real Madrid or Barcelona who had made the greater impact on European football.

That evening was brought to a close with Guillem Balague and Avram Grant delighting the auditorium with an extremely fluid, yet no less polished discussion on Lionel Messi, the subject of the former’s most recent book.

Given the noticeable boom in sports literature that has filled our shelves, and the clamour from newspapers to serialise segments of new releases, as seen most recently by the Daily Mail’s week-long offering of Harry Redknapp’s new autobiography, ‘Always Managing’, Winfield was acutely aware of the potential for hosting a sports writing festival back in January 2012.

‘We had pretty high expectations, and we knew that there were a lot of good sports books being published in the next 18 months,’ she said.

‘For us, the challenge was finding the venue, finding the media partner, and persuading those personalities that this was going to be a big enough draw for them’, Winfield concluded.

With the arrival of Autumn, St John’s Wood, like SW19 after a Wimbledon Championship, has been known to resemble somewhat of a ghost town; yet it would appear that Lord’s offers fertile ground for off-season occasions such as these, when British sport’s most celebrated authors and personalities come together to display their literary prowess. And crucially for organisers, housing the event is an accolade which the Home of Cricket would do well to retain.

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