Book’s a winner, but two years too late

Steven Downes reviews Geoffrey Ward’s Unforgivable Blackness, his outstanding 2004 biography of Jack Johnson that won the 2006 Sports Book of the Year Award

So there we have it. The William Hill Sports Book of 2006 is a book that was first published in 2004. Does that make sense to you? No, I thought not.

In our previous reviews of books shortlisted for the 2006 “Bookie Prize”, we have already outlined the serious shortcomings of some of the favoured works: the poor research, the obvious factual errors, and the passing off of passages of dialogue as if it had actually happened when in fact it is nothing more than a bit of fiction cooked up by the author in an effort to pep up the prose.

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson suffers from none of those faults, for the ultimate winner of the 2006 William Hill award, its hefty £18,000 prize and “free” £2,000 bet with the sponsors, is undoubtedly an excellent piece of work.

But was it a 2006 piece of work? The answer has to be a definitive “no”.

In a sense, the William Hill judges’ work was pre-judged for them. The latest edition of the winning book is plastered with a dozen or more glowing review extracts, from both America (where the book was first published in 2004) and Britain (where it was being reviewed in 2005). Would Messrs McIlvanney, Inverdale, Hayward & Co dare to contradict the untrammelled praise from the New York Times Book Review or the Sunday Times?

In fact, this book has been around for so long that the film of the book actually won an Emmy in 2005. The scriptwriter, Geoffrey Ward, admits he wrote the book because he had so much great material he could not include in the four-hour documentary. So, got the T-shirt and the CD of the Wynton Marsarlis soundtrack, now collect the award cheque.

By granting the prize to this book, it only goes to raise another serious question about what the William Hill Award is doing for sports publishing, and therefore sports journalism, in Britain.

It was, after all, the Bookie Prize that first lauded Fever Pitch. An unforeseen and unwanted side effect of that book’s success has been the mountain of other wannabe football memoirs, few of them even half as good. We have also been plagued with an unwanted sub-genre of football books which, bless his heart, even the likes of Joey Barton has questioned whether they are worth felling another tree. For the statistically minded, the first book in Wayne Rooney’s £5 million, five-book life story had sold less than 50,000 by Christmas, while Cashley Cole’s “book”, for which he was paid £250,000, had sold just 4,000 copies.

The bad news for real sports writers is that for every pound spent on these unwanted, nothing-to-say volumes, it means that the publishers will have at least £1 less to spend on a sporting work of genuine merit.

Last month, one frustrated sports author wrote to complain of the lack of acknowledgement which his efforts had received. This writer had sold his house, moved countries and endured death threats all in order to do the hard yards of journalistic graft to get to the bottom of some really worthwhile research. But his book had gone largely unnoticed. Looking at the William Hill Sports Book award decision, our author wrote: “Next time, perhaps I’ll take refuge in a warm, dry corner of our sporting past, or perhaps a heart-warming, personal story, and steer clear of dangerous issues that are expensive in every way to investigate.”

He has point. For not only was Unforgivable Blackness published in 2004, it is entirely derivative. Even its author admits that his work is principally a distillation of four previous biographies of Johnson, who boxer’s life story from rags to riches is already so well known that another volume on the subject had even been included on the William Hill Award shortlist in 2005.

PLEASE, THOUGH, do not let this dissuade you from taking the opportunity to read Unforgivable Blackness. It is a terrific book by a distinguished author of works of history and biography (Ward has previously worked on highly regarded books or TV documentaries on baseball, the American Civil War and Mark Twain).

This book tells the story of an extraordinary sportsman set, with glorious detail, in the foul world of boxing in the early part of the 20th century.

The sense of setting is very well conveyed. Johnson, after all, was born in Galveston, Texas barely a decade after the ending of slavery in the United States, but in the midst of the Deep South where lynch mob law would still be found for another 100 years.

Yet Johnson overcame all sorts of opposition, and travelled halfway around the world, to become the first black man to win the heavyweight world title. As if to underline Johnson’s determined triumph against prejudice and adversity, after he’d lost the championship to Jess Willard in 1915, the next black boxer even to get a title chance would be Joe Louis in 1937. Johnson’s success in the boxing ring even gave rise to the saying “the Great White Hope”, in the terms of a yellow press’ desperate search for a “suitable” opponent.

Indeed, the unashamed racism of the press coverage which Ward quotes is quite shocking from the comfortable distance of nearly a century: “Even in ostensibly objective news stories, Johnson is called the ‘dinge’, the ‘coon’, the ‘stove’, the ‘Texas Darky’, the ‘Big Smoke’, the ‘Ethiopian’, the ‘Senegambian’ and – more often than one can credit – simply ‘the nigger’.”

Despite all his disadvantages, Johnson became one of the world’s most famous figures in those years before the First World War, although even Ward expresses some caution about the stories that grew around his subject: “He was an inexhaustible tender of his own legend, a teller of tall tales in the frontier tradition of his native state. It is impossible now to know for certain what happened to him during his early years – or even whether some of what he described with such relish ever happened at all” (a brave piece of authorial admission, coming as it does with another 450-plus pages to come in which Ward goes on to re-tell much of Johnson’s own story).

But what Ward does do, in typically American, quasi-academic style and sometimes slightly tedious detail, however, is relate every source and cite every reference whenever he quotes Johnson or his contemporaries. It could be an object lesson to some of Ward’s fellow short-listed authors.

The picture this helps to build, above all else, is that Johnson was a threat and a menace to the established (white) order of his times, just as Muhammad Ali was an iconclastic threat when he refused the US Army draft and stopped using his slave name some five decades later.

And in common with many boxers, of whatever colour, out of the ring Johnson displayed a self-destructive streak, in terms of his gambling, womanising (which saw him exiled from America for a spell when found guilty of consorting with white women, which he did with abundant relish, marrying three, to the horror of the mores of the time), and his taste for speed which, ultimately, saw Johnson killed when he crashed one of his cars.

Ward’s principle contribution in this book is the publication, for the first time, of Johnson’s own prison memoir, coupled with some fine writing.

Indeed, had the book been an original work published in 2006, it would have been a most worthy winner of the sports book of the year award.

Read our other reviews of books featured on the William Hill Sports Book Award shortlist:
Owens falsely accused in Hitler Games book
Runner sprints away from the facts
Heavyweight tome knocks out book judges