Arlott, Botham, Giller pay tribute to M’Dear Frank

John Arlott summarised the appeal and affection for Frank Keating and his sports writing. Arlott wrote: “Frank Keating has retained into his adult writing years an almost boyish enthusiasm for sporting performance and a completely non-envious admiration for its performers… his is the blend of romanticism, relish and sheer delight.”

Frank Keating, 1937-2013: this was his final byline portrait, taken by The Guardian's Jeff Morgan
Frank Keating, 1937-2013: this was his final byline portrait, taken by The Guardian’s Jeff Morgan

It is a theme that is familiar from the many glowing tributes, all of them fond, for Keating, who died yesterday after a brief illness.

Today’s obituary for Frank Keating, written by his former sports editor, John Samuel, begins: “Few modern sports writers have brought alive sporting people, past and present, champions and also-rans, as Keating did. Few have written with such sympathy, able to laugh with them, not at them, at the same time minting fresh, inventive phraseology. He created a new language for the nation’s sporting press. He was unique, and beloved by contemporaries, who saw his writing skills and awards as a guiding path for their own.”

Samuel notes that Keating regarded himself as a “mere” Sancho Panza to the paper’s “serious” sports correspondents, the John Roddas, the David Laceys, the Matthew Engels and, of course, Arlott himself. Yet in his obituary, Samuel cites how Arlott admired Keating’s work, too.

Arlott wrote the foreword for a collection of Keating’s work, taken from The Spectator, The Oldie, New Statesman and Punch, as well as the Guardian, and the poet and cricket writer, “remarked how an earlier book, Another Bloody Day in Paradise, an account of the 1980-81 MCC tour of the West Indies, was one of the most admired by players. Keating’s boyish enthusiasm was so well carried into maturity that men of both sides offered serious confidences,” Samuel writes.

The obituary can be read in full here.

Keating’s book, Another Bloody Day in Paradise, remains among the best cricket books ever written – and cricket is a sport much written about, and often very well. David Hopps, another former Guardian cricket writer, now the editor-in-chief at ESPN’s Cricinfo, explains Keating’s great ability as a sports writer: “To read Keating was to read somebody who never lost his ability to communicate the enchantment of the game, explaining either in a single phrase or a lengthy, alliterative flight of fancy, just why we all spent so much of our lives watching people compete with bat and ball. He had an eye for the comic and, when riled, most often by pompous administrators, he could dip his pen in vitriol, but heroism, whether it be a cricketer, an Olympian or a horse, was what he yearned for.

“He was an unapologetic romantic, showering those he wrote about with praise and devotion and, more often than not, a rush of compound adjectives. In his hands, sentimentality or nostalgia were qualities to cherish.”

Randall Northam, the SJA’s Treasurer, had come to work with Keating recently as the publisher at SportsBooks. “You get used to bad news as you get older and several of my contemporaries have died lately – Brian Woolnough and Eddie Giles being two of them. I knew them both but Frank had become a friend over the last few years,” Northam writes.

“Frank wrote once ‘The ever diligent, off-beat SportsBooks’, and we thought that summed us up. Then he became someone we could check to test whether a book should be published. He also directed a couple to us as well, one a turkey, another which did quite well.

“He would always be willing to write a foreword. His last was for Mike Vockins’ biography of Arthur Milton, a cricketer Frank grew up watching when he was a boy in Gloucestershire. As usual it was pitch perfect, beautifully written, and I am sure Mike will forgive me when I say it was the best writing in the book.

“Frank was, of course, The Guardian’s top columnist and he even featured in my one attempt to join the paper. The Guardian was looking for a reporter to cover the north-west, based in Manchester. John Samuel interviewed me and asked the question: ‘What would you do to improve The Guardian’s sports pages?’

“It’s a stock question to ask at interviews but I hadn’t prepared for it because as far as I was concerned The Guardian’s sports pages were all about the writing and the writing at that time was superb. After a brief thought all I could come up with was: ‘cut one in three of Frank Keating’s adjectives’.

“When I got to know him well I told him that story and with typical self deprecation Frank replied: ‘It would have improved the ramblings.’

“When I became a publisher, Frank was an obvious contact; The Guardian didn’t review books on sport, but Frank would always find space for one of my books or one from Stephen Chalke of Fairfield publishing, usually in his annual  (!) discussion of the books on the William Hill short list.

“Difficult to believe I won’t get another postcard ending, ‘Keep them coming m’dear and keep up the good work’.”

Matthew Engel, Keating’s former Guardian colleague, has written affectionately, again (see our news item yesterday, with links to the 2002 valedictory) of his old friend: “Only the revered and knighted Neville Cardus, who reigned as cricket correspondent between the wars, had as much influence on the paper’s sports coverage and its reputation as Frank did. In-house he was master of the revels. On the page he was something more than an enjoyable read; the wider Guardian community regarded him as a personal friend who saw sport with the same unjaundiced eye that they did and wanted to believe the best of their heroes.”

Engel’s latest, last tribute can be read in full by clicking here.

Ian Botham at the Headingley Ashes Test of 1981: a player, and a match, that might have been made for Frank Keating
Ian Botham at the Headingley Ashes Test of 1981: a player, and a match, that might have been made for Frank Keating

Ian Botham epitomised the heroic sporting character and achievements which Keating so loved, and with his West Country connections first at Somerset, it was unsurprising that Keating latched on to young Botham at the start of his county career.

As the great all-rounder remembered yesterday, after first encountering him, Keating remained loyal ever more.

“Frank and I had a great relationship going back to my very early days,” Sir Ian said.

“He used to come along with that pipe in his top pocket or hanging out of his mouth. He was a loyal friend, through thick and thin. We had a great time. He wrote with a genuine love of sport. He was an infectious writer, he was unique.”

Another England captain of that gilded era of the early 1980s, David Gower, said of Keating, “He was a gentleman and a gentle man. Whimsical, knowledgable, with a lovely turn of phrase. He loved the game, seemed to understand the people who played it and was always very easy to get on with. If one was interviewed by Frank it was a gentle pleasure.”

For Bob Willis, a regular guest at Keating’s dinner parties in Holland Park, “He was a marvellous writer, he mixed sentimentality with all that was good in sport. He always looked for the good in everything, never sniping at anybody.”

And Keating’s temperament and utter kindness extended, also, to his colleagues, including the younger ones who were awed by his writing but whom he never shunned or ignored, as can some times happen when the “big beasts” are in the press box.

Ben Clissitt worked with Keating for more than a decade, much of that time as another of his sports editors at The Guardian. He is now the head of sport at the Telegraph Group, as well as being an SJA committee member, and he said of the writer, “For us youngsters who arrived in the Guardian office long on ambition but short on experience, Frank was a gentleman and a gem.

“He could not have been more patient, more supportive or more collegiate. All the while delivering copy that was matchless in its vibrancy, clarity and empathy. His enjoyment of sports and the achievements of sportspeople shone through every sentence – an increasingly rare commodity in today’s sports pages.

“His kindness to those he worked with, and his generosity in advising and promoting the many young journalists inspired by him were invisible to the outside world. But they will be treasured by so many in Fleet Street who owe so much to him.”

SJA member and cricket writer Rob Steen approached one assignment, to interview Keating, with typical trepidation when in the presence of greatness. He need not have worried. “We met when I interviewed him at his Holland Park home for City Limits magazine in the mid-80s: nervy Guardian-reading acolyte meets languid hero.

“He couldn’t have been chummier or kinder, or more encouraging, though my delight at being addressed as ‘M’dear’ would diminish a touch when I learned that he called everyone that.

“To me, he was the complete package. He knew how to feel and convey the joy of sport, and wasn’t the slightest bit interested in aren’t-I-droll understatement. He loved sport, and sportsfolk even more. At the same time, in print and flesh, he raged against the machine with a passionate eloquence born of one acutely aware that the price of that joy was a great deal of woe. It was, after all, the age of apartheid: nobody stuck the boot into Danie Craven and Ali Bacher like Frank. He was an innovator, too: nobody verbalised nouns like Frank.

“Fast-forward to the 2001 Cricket Society Literary Award bash: Frank was one of the judges and a book I’d written with Alastair McLellan finished runner-up. A day or two later a letter popped through the letterbox: a copy of the comments he had submitted to the jury, with whom he had plainly disagreed. They were extremely kind, perhaps too kind. They made my professional life. I’ll miss him terribly.”

Like Botham, Keating was very much the all-rounder, happy to write on cricket or rugby, he would also cover athletics, horse racing or boxing, and he and his work were admired and respected even by established sports writers, wherever he turned his hand.

Norman Giller writes: Being a gentleman, he had been in touch recently to thank me for a mention I had given him in my regular SJA column. It was about my work as a PR on the Muhammad Ali world title defence against Richard Dunn in Munich in 1976:

One day I shall write a book about the experience, Muhammad Ali’s Funniest Fight. I will give you just a taste, and it includes arguably the finest intro I ever read on a fight preview. Take a bow, Frank Keating.

This is how the master sportswriter grabbed the attention of his Guardian readers in May 1976:
Tonight in the Boxhalle, Munich, Muhammad Ali, of the United States of America and The Universe, will defend his world heavyweight title against Richard Dunn, of 23 Railway Cuttings, Bradford, West Yorkshire.

I would give my left testicle to be able to write an intro like that (which is devalued, incidentally,
following a vasectomy in 1970).

Frank said he was flattered by my words… “but I would rather be flattered than flattened like Richard Dunn was that night”.

There have been few to match Frank’s gift for lacing the facts and figures of sport with a humour that was that always biting but never ever cruel. Will there ever be a better twin attack than Frank and his long-time colleague David Lacey, who made the Guardian sports pages must-reads for so many years?

Frank will not only be missed as a supreme sportswriter but as a slightly eccentric, always affable man who represented our much-maligned profession with style, wit and – very often – sheer genius.

A huge light has gone out in our sports world.