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Strictly scrum.

A Fortnightly Review.

What a Flanker
by James Haskell

Harper Collins | 320pp | $18.99 £12.00)



WHAT’S A NICE girl like me doing reviewing a memoir by a great big, muscly ex-rugby player?

Part One. Some months before Covid struck, I walked into my daily café, for lunch. The café has a large central table, great for talking to strangers, not so great for overhearing spoilt rich people talking about their expensive holidays and designer clothes. This day, I walked in, sat at one of the few places left at the table, looked up. A nice face smiled at me, and I smiled back. As we quickly struck up a zappy, witty chat, I noticed the arm-tattoos, discovered that he was an ex-rugby player with an injured shoulder. Then his wife arrived, and I thought, that’s the end of that. It wasn’t. The chat expanded, I recognised her as Chloe Madeley (seen her on tele), he introduced himself as James Haskell, we shook hands (those were the days) and the rest is not history. Just backstory.

Part Two. A while ago someone suggested I should read some Dick Francis. I don’t read detective stories, I’m allergic to horses and have no interest in horse-racing. However, I tried one book,  and was hooked. Great narrative movement, no formal detective, just a jockey doing the detecting. Over a handful of books I learned a bit about racing, and a whole lot about the conditions and practices behind the scenes. Illuminating and shocking. If true (and they were consistent, which led me to think they probably were), how did people continue to tolerate the harsh conditions in which the stable staff worked, the cruelty, the bullying, the bad practices, sometimes even towards the horses. Rhetorical question?

Part Three. Over the past year or so, stories have emerged about other forms of cruelty in sport — especially in relation to the training of gymnasts. I would hope that such exposures will lead to more responsible forms of training. I would hope that Dick Francis’s books had some impact on the horse-racing world.

Part Four. I know nothing really about rugby; the few glimpses I get, as I channel surf, look rough and violent. I can see the strength and the athleticism and field skills. The closest I came to rugby was at my co-educational grammar school (before comprehensives) where the boys played rugby on Saturday and some of us girls went down to the field to pour tea and dish out sandwiches and jam tarts. I think I just went along for something to do on empty weekends in Chingford. It wasn’t because I was interested in rugby, and I didn’t fancy any of the sporty boys.

Da capo to Part One. One of the morning TV chat shows had James Haskell on. Relaxed, funny, personable, he had a book out. My curiosity was piqued.

Anyone who loves rugby and everything about it will love this book. I don’t love rugby and I certainly don’t love much of what I have learned about its behind-the-scenes —but this book has a lot going for it. Turn first to the ‘Acknowledgements’ at the back. Along with thanks to parents, agent, editor, publishers and wife, Chloe, is an honest tribute to ghost-writer, Ben Dirs. Long interviews, followed by judicious structuring by editor Zoe Berville, have resulted in a sharp, chatty, very readable semi-memoir, in a direct, almost no-holds-barred style. Haskell is rightly pleased with the tone and humour of the voice on the page.

The picaresque sections are packed with detail, and, inevitably, cover similar experiences over a successful sports career.

The picaresque sections are packed with detail, and, inevitably, cover similar experiences over a successful sports career. Aptitude, enthusiasm, workoholism and athletic achievement. With Wasps since he was a teenager, Haskell progressed to its captaincy, played for England, played rugby in France, Japan and New Zealand, finally accumulating injuries which forced him to retire in 2019. Not that activities have stopped — podcasts, TV programmes, books and a new passion, DJing.

For those who understand rugby, know its history and personnel, there will be riveting insights into the minutiae of who was chosen, who rejected, which managers did and didn’t do what. Haskell’s hero, Lawrence Dallaglio, appears at intervals, as an important influence. The book begins with a boat trip and a series of out-of-mind and scatological things happening. Towards the end of the read, Haskell discusses the time when a hotel maid alleged sexual assault. This section includes a tease moment when he refers in passing (unfortunately not developing it) to the dwarf-throwing (he calls it ‘dwarf-tossing’) Mike Tindall fracas.

For readers like me — those who might want insights into sport celebs (Haskell is a bit shy about whether he is one: chatting to Elton John at Harry and Meghan’s wedding? Do me a favour.) — another layer rises to the top. Da capo to Part Two and Part Three.

The intensive physical, mental and emotional commitment necessary for the sport are impressive. However, Haskell thinks they play too many games, with too much training, and not enough rest and rehabilitation. Plus ‘Players are still flogged to within an inch of their lives in pre-season.’ Initiation and ‘tribal’ rituals, gone into in graphic detail, involve ‘team socials’, in which there is no choice about heavy boozing. Team building involves practical jokes, changing room stories about pubic hair, toilet tales, and on and on. In that context, the naughty boy (man?) who skimmed the top off the fruit crumble ends up sounding like a real wimp, in the midst of the macho (schoolboy?) routines.

Whittled out of the professional narrative, these suggest cruelty as an essential component of the survival mechanisms. Haskell was, seemingly, appallingly treated when, his captaincy notwithstanding, he was summarily dismissed from Wasps. Perhaps because he has retired, he is able to come clean about some of the cruelty, to admit his fears, his disappointments, his upsettedness. ‘Work’ with a psychologist and the presence of Chloe, his wife, are also likely to have helped with the honesty which permeates the narrative. (There is, by the way, little about sex — an odd omission, given the ribaldry, but perhaps a judicious decision.)

It is a sine qua non that there is physical risk in high-contact sport. However, management cruelty must be unnecessary, must be challenged and stopped. But what about the emotional and physical interchanges among team members (is ‘violence’ too strong a word?) supposed to build and maintain camaraderie? Some of it sounds like a cross between public-school bullying and Dickens’ Dotheboys’ Hall.

Perhaps the ‘violence’ serves to keep softer emotions at bay. Perhaps (careful where I am venturing here) it serves to distract attention from the possible homo-erotic implications of such a physical game. (A ‘Rugby’ curse, a la ‘Strictly’?)

Haskell has not reneged on sport, and has now apparently trained in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Didn’t one of Monica’s boyfriends in Friends get into that, with disastrous consequences?

I rest my case.

Michelene Wandor is a poet, playwright, short story writer and the curator-author of Four Words. She has also written a critique of Creative Writing — The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived (Palgrave). Her new poetry collection, Travellers, will be published in early 2021.

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