Making rhyme or reason out of Lainson Wood

Prompted by the laureate’s response to David Beckham’s Achilles, the SJA’s very own “Bard of Bournemouth”, NORMAN GILLER, recalls a press box poet from half a century ago

From Peterborough, Preston and Peckham
Seas of sympathy flow for our boy Beckham
A ruptured heel
That will not heal
So no trip to South Africa, or even Effingham

That’s my contribution to the poetic debate on David Beckham’s career-threatening injury.

I was greatly amused to find Becks becoming an unlikely muse to Britain’s poet laureate, whose swiftly penned verse caused much merriment in these quarters.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem imagines Beckham as Greek hero Achilles, who was invincible except for his heel.

Was she being ironic with the line: “Women hid him, concealed him in girls’ sarongs; days of sweetmeats, spices, silver songs …”?

Does our queen of poetry follow Becks so closely that she recalls when he was the laugh of football for going to a nightclub dressed in a sarong? And were the spices any reference to Posh and her singing mates? Is Ms Duffy this witty? I think we should be told.

This was the full, rich work:

Myth’s river ” where his mother dipped him, fished him, a slippery golden boy flowed on, his name on its lips.
Without him, it was prophesised, they would not take Troy.
Women hid him, concealed him in girls’ sarongs; days of sweetmeats, spices, silver songs…
But when Odysseus came, with an athlete’s build, a sword and a shield, he followed him to the battlefield, the crowd’s roar,
And it was sport, not war, his charmed foot on the ball…
But then his heel, his heel, his heel…

OK, I’m biased, but I think I prefer my Del Boy effort.

It is times like this when I wish I had the magical word power of a Lainson Wood. He would have come up with a poetic masterpiece that would have knocked Carol Ann and me for six.

You have never heard of Lainson Wood? One of us is showing his age. When I was first coming into this sportswriting business, Lainson was winding up after more than 40 years on the word wagon, most notably with the Daily Telegraph.

I would put his style of writing as somewhere between the crackling wit of Frank Keating and the arrowing impact of Pat Collins.
But put Frank and Pat together and they could have hidden behind Lainson. He was huge. And I mean huge.

You could take a panoramic view of him as he shuffled to ringsides and courtsides as one of the great tennis and boxing essayists.
Just under 6ft tall, he weighed more than 20 stone and appeared as wide as he was tall. He looked like my idea of the Abominable Snowman, but by the time I came into his life he was grey rather than white.

Lainson, armed with the vocabulary of a university don, was the constant companion of the Daily Mirror‘s Man They Can’t Gag, Peter Wilson. What an eye-catching duo to represent the British press at the world’s great sporting occasions, Wood built like a wardrobe and Wilson, always wearing a flowing cloak and carrying a silver-topped cane that was not only a sword stick but also a channel for his favourite whisky tipple.

Late in his career, Wood suffered from a form of narcolepsy. He would fall asleep in between mouthfuls of food and would then make the dining table shake with bull-like snoring. This usually followed heavy bouts of drinking, at which he and Wilson were black belts. What his colleagues learned was not to shake him awake because he would come out of his sleep making a booming sound like a whale hunting a mate.

In Moscow for an international athletics match between Russia and Britain in the mid-1950s, the prize pair, Wood and Wilson, wangled their way in to the Bolshoi Ballet to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet that was being staged for the State visit of West German leader Konrad Adenauer.

They had wined and dined to bursting point before taking their seats in a VIP box right alongside where Adenauer was enjoying the hospitality of Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

The heat of the theatre and the classical rhythms of Prokofiev quickly lulled Lainson into a deep sleep, accompanied by snoring so loud that Khrushchev ” and the conductor ” kept throwing irritated glances at the Wilson/Wood box.

It finally got so distracting that Wilson decided he had to risk the roar of the whale, and prodded Wood in the ribs. He duly came out of his slumber with a shout that could have woken the dead, and Peter later recalled that Romeo leapt an extra two feet, Juliet nearly fell out of the balcony and half a dozen secret servicemen pulled out their revolvers.

The worse-for-wear pair were bundled out of the theatre, with Wood complaining: “That wash a damn short show …”

One more true Wood story (there are scores of them). He reported a British title fight at Nottingham Ice Rink, which was notoriously a freezing cold venue for boxing. He put on an extra large overcoat that made him look like a walking Big Top.
When he squeezed into the ringside press seat intended for somebody a third of his size, he managed ” unbeknown to the wearer ” to dislodge his neighbour’s squirrel-type wig with the hem of his vast coat. The hairpiece took off and landed in the ring during a preliminary fight.

The referee saw it out of the corner of his eye, thought it was a gumshield and kicked it to a cornerman, who ” caught up in the fight action ” dropped it into a water bucket. In those days, a gumshield was replaced at the end of the round.

When the bell went the chief second removed his boxer’s gumshield and put it into the bucket, where he felt something furry. “Bloody hell,” he said, “there’s a dead rat in here.”

Meantime, the man who had lost his wig suddenly realised his now totally bald head was unusually cold. When he felt it ” and Lainson swore this was true ” he shouted: “Help, I’ve been scalped.”

Lainson Wood: Pottiness and Poetry in motion.

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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