Doctor of Letters
20 July 2007 - Orator: Mr Barry Taylor
Simon Barnes is Chief Sports Writer for The Times and, it may be suggested, chief sports writer for the UK. He also produces a weekly column on wildlife for The Times. He has written 15 books, including three novels. He is a birdwatcher, a horseman and a lover of literature, language and travel. He is a committed family man. He is also, I am glad to say, a graduate of this university.
Simon was born in Bristol to talented and creative parents, but the family subsequently moved to London. He attended a secondary school with a tradition of tolerance, which was probably just as well. He found his niche among the school’s longhaired, leftwing intellectuals – an endangered species now, but one that flourished in the ’60s and ’70s.
Bristol offered him a place to read English, recognising that while his performance in examinations was less than glittering, he was original, well read and gifted. He studied here from 1970-73, following a syllabus largely of his own devising. Homer, Dante, Flaubert, Proust and Hesse absorbed much of his attention. He chose to spend most of his second year studying Blake, even though his tutor warned him this would damage his academic prospects. Simon was a maverick, but he shone. His essay on Joyce’s notoriously impenetrable Finnegans Wake, written in the style of Finnegans Wake and complemented by an essay about the essay, brought both plaudits and a declaration that the literary essay was now dead. He was a memorable and distinguished student and he was awarded a Third.
After Bristol, Simon spent four years reporting for provincial newspapers before moving to the South China Morning Post, from which he was fired within weeks. He did not fit in, they said; Simon concurred. He went freelance, travelling about Asia for four years and drawing on a passion for sport that had always been in his blood but which the 1966 World Cup had redoubled. When he returned home he reported on cricket and other sports for The Times and wrote for The Spectator, as well as producing a varied collection of books, both fiction and non-fiction. The freelance phase of his career lasted 24 years. It was not until 2002, with his appointment as Chief Sports Writer, that Simon got a proper job again.
One of his earlier books, Flying In the Face of Nature, was published in 1990 and grew from his fascination with birds. He still describes himself as ‘a bad birdwatcher’ – someone who enjoys birds without claiming to be an expert on them and who does not share the twitcher’s obsession with spotting rare species and ticking them off a list. He has written a book about tigers, too, as well as a novel set in the African safari business. Other books, including one called A La Recherche Du Cricket Perdu, have been about sport rather than animals, birds or wild places. The subjects of his writing continue to range from butterflies to tennis. Whatever the topic, philosophical reflections and a sprinkling of literary allusions add depth and resonance.
A number of his interests come together in horse riding. Simon has ridden competitively as well as for the sheer thrill of the 35-mile-an-hour gallop. He has four horses of his own; they comprise what he calls his ‘harem of lovely mares’. He describes how, for a horseman, ‘every horse is Pegasus’, promising speed, freedom and flight. He sees many sporting challenges in such terms – as ‘wars on gravity’ with their own mythologies and potential for heroism. The long, silent stretch of a horse as it clears a jump can be awesome and loaded with meaning. So can the arc of a perfectly hit ball or the sweep of an oar on the river. And so can the glide of a bird on the wind. Simon’s writing, whether about sport or nature, is vivid and robust because it captures the undercurrents of events and the poetry in the moment.
When Ireland triumphed over England on the rugby field in February 2007, it was on one level ‘just a bloody rugby match…the grappling of 30 mighty, dripping mud-men’ – and yet Simon also saw in it a confirmation by Ireland of its arrival as ‘a prosperous, effective, forward-looking nation’. The story of Steve Redgrave’s fifth gold medal for rowing in five Olympic games is both a simple one of total dedication and, in Simon’s words, ‘the final book in the Redgraviad, an epic we had all been following for 16 years’. Or consider Pete Sampras’s victory over Andre Agassi in the 1999 Wimbledon final. He won in straight sets, even though Agassi was playing to perfection. Simon describes how, to win the match, Sampras had to reach beyond perfection and attain a profound stillness of mind. The piece he wrote about it at the time prompted his favourite letter from a reader – a Canadian Catholic nun who doubled as a Zen master. She, too, understood what transformed technical wizardry into genius.
Simon likes to see sports as metaphors. Tennis is a duel; racing is evolution; football is a battle. (The exception is boxing, in which he thinks the fighting is uncomfortably literal.)
He is fond of paradoxes, too. He wrote recently that a hare is easily confused with a rabbit and yet is quite unmistakable. In an article about the downfall of Duncan Fletcher, the England cricket coach, he wrote about ‘sport’s earth-shattering importance and its mind-numbing triviality’. To him, the appreciation of sport requires, in Coleridge’s phrase, ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’. If you are to be receptive to the power of sport, you have to accept – even relish – the fact that, in the scheme of things, it really does not matter. Simon has written about ‘the impermanence of talent, the ephemeral nature of ability’ and yet he sees sport, like the natural world, as a source of timeless insights and moments that last forever. Life may be nasty, brutish and short, but in gymnastics you can get a glimpse of perfection. Butterflies may be insignificant, but they ‘keep a modicum of beauty fluttering about in this world’. You can be on the losing side, but it might also be the right side.
Simon does not do cynicism. He has no time for ‘the whisperers…the leakers…the sneerers’ who rush to condemn great athletes on the strength of mere gossip about drug misuse. He has no empathy with those who see the London Olympics as a waste of money; he expects the tedious backbiting that will ensue between now and 2012 to be wiped out by 17 days of glory. For him, watching great sport is like reading great literature: both are vivid, compelling experiences that illuminate the human condition and make it more enjoyable.
The Barnes family – Simon, his wife, Cindy and their sons, Joseph and Edmund – live in Suffolk. Theirs is a Tudor house, found after a long search. The family knew they had finally got the right place when Joseph said on their first visit, ‘I think there will be toys in this house.’ In Suffolk, Simon also has his books, a few acres of land, his horses and abundant bird life. It is a good place for reflection on such matters as the importance for humans of maintaining contact with non-humans – the theme of his sixteenth book, to be published this autumn.
I asked Keith Blackmore, Executive Editor at The Times, to tell me about Simon. He said quite a lot, including this: ‘Simon’s best sports work is almost invariably delivered from the heat of the battle, when he somehow manages to alchemise the chaos he has seen into a vivid, insightful account of what has unfolded before him, always in beautiful, memorable prose and with a complete lack of fear as to what anyone else might think. He truly is a master and the editor of the paper…is often given to referring to him as a genius.’
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Simon Barnes, a true master, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.