Muriel Spark, Sports Commentary, and the Spoken Word

Man Tying Football Boots
Category: Reading

It’s a match made in heaven. As a new season kicks off, thoughts turn to Muriel Spark. If I were picking a Scottish Literature First XI, the mercurial Muriel would be the first name on the team sheet. Always on the ball, Spark knew what the beautiful game could offer by way of poetry and finesse.

In her first novel, The Comforters (1957), she gives us a snatch of radio commentary that captures the excitement of a Saturday afternoon: ‘Absolutely perfect … A pass back there – a foul tackle and the whistle … the sun has come out, everything looks absolutely perfect with the red coats of the band … that feeling of – of tenseness … and now again for the second half … the first dramatic … absolutely perfect … it’s a corner, a goal to Manchester City … a beautiful, absolutely …’.

This passage of play comes at a moment in the novel when Louisa Jepp listens to her grandson, Laurence Manders, a sports commentator with the BBC: "Louisa Jepp sat beside the wireless, cuddled in the entranced carcass of Laurence’s voice." Not the carcass of the radio, mind, the ghost in the machine, but the "entranced carcass" of the speaking voice. This match commentary dates from the year the novel was published, but could be from any given Saturday. 

In Spark’s world, male commentators could be outmatched by women footballers

In Spark’s world, male commentators could be outmatched by women footballers. In Loitering with Intent (1981), Fleur Talbot, Spark’s poet-turned-novelist, manages to get on the score sheet. Fleur springs into action when she is accused of being a daydreamer: "The other day when I had looked in on Dottie, in her little flat, and had a row with her on the subject of my wriggling out of real life, unlike herself, I came out into the court-yard exasperated as usual. Some small boys were playing football, and the ball came flying straight towards me. I kicked it with a chance grace, which, if I had studied the affair and tried hard, I never could have done. Away into the air it went, and landed in the small boy’s waiting hands. The boy grinned. And so, having entered the fullness of my years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing."

That ‘chance grace’ was also bound up with the oral tradition, with storytelling and listening. In her brilliant biographical and critical study of John Masefield, first published in 1953, Spark defends the spoken word against those who claim it is in decline: "When I say that there still exist vast audiences who listen to stories, I am thinking of those many thousands (many thousands more than listen to broadcast novels) who listen to broadcast commentaries on national events – cup-ties, the Derby, State processions. It is possible, therefore, that radio and television commentators are the present-day counterpart of the ancient bard who got up and gave utterance. To be a public commentator is now the vocation for the born narrator. If we want to know something of the excitement transmitted by the spoken story in the past, we will find it in the excitement these commentators send over the air: the commentary on the Grand National is a story – the modern form of epic which owes its form (eye-witness) to a widespread belief in actual events and a corresponding disbelief in events imaginatively presented, however historically accurate. I think this indicates a deep desire in all people for a spoken story. The need to hear a story cannot, I think, be satisfied by the seeing of it."

So with the 2017-18 season now underway, the season that leads to the Spark Centenary, tune in to the poetry of commentary. and if the ball comes your way, don’t study or try hard; just put your foot through it, and go on your way rejoicing.

Willy Maley

Professor Willy Maley has published widely on Scottish literature and culture, including studies of Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway, James Kelman, Muriel Spark and Irvine Welsh. In 2005 he edited The List Guide to the 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time with support from Scottish Book Trust. As a playwright, Willy is also a former Fringe First winner and has had work performed at the Arches, Pavilion, Tramway and Tron theatres.

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