Quality voices drowned out by blog revolution


LOCKER ROOM: The proliferation of instant comment via email and text is having a detrimental effect

THE TIMES, as Bob likes to say, are a changin'. Stuck, as we are, on our little snot-green republic on the edge of Europe, we don't notice change that much as it seeps in from elsewhere like last year's fashions. We're sentimental people and when we notice something is changing we're onto it like a dog onto a bone.

If you are over 40 and lucky enough to still be working this little recession we are having for instance isn't so much a credit crunch or a global economic cycle as it is a chance to bore younger people with tales of how bad it was in the '80s when those lucky enough to have emigrated left behind a populace who lived in pythonesque shoeboxes and ate hot gravel on feast days. Myles should be alive to record our keening about how bad it was.

Truth is we miss the bad old days. For many of us, prosperity didn't sit too well. I preferred the old tumbledown version of Temple Bar and I miss the sweet hashish scent beckoning me into the Dandelion Market. McGonagles. The TV Club. The Olympic Ballroom. And of course Freddie White in his prime.

Drove a few hundred miles the other day listening to Freddie's first two albums corralled together on the Lost and FoundCD. As I used to tell my more hip friends who worshipped back then at the modish feet of the Golden Horde or Those Nervous Animals, funny haircuts come and go - class is permanent.

Anyway what brought all this seasonal nostalgia on was being exposed this week to US television for the first time in a few years and seeing the way in which the new technologies have hauled down the old ways like rampant citizens pulling down statues of Saddam or poor old Comrade Enver.

Television and newspapers have come out with their arms up and surrendered to blog culture. Sport is the most pliant area of the newly-occupied media territories and the good old sports commentating industry lies supine on the floor while anybody with text capability or emails gets on air or in print, not with inside dope but with their own opinions.

I'm not saying our old journalistic culture of "this is my opinion and you are all entitled to it" shed much more light on any given sporting situation but I do miss the gentle comfort of reading the good writing which big-city sports pages in the states were once famous for.

They are still there of course, the guys who would be gods to me. Gary Smith, the in-house genius of Sports Illustratedhas a collection on the shelves these days called Going Deep. Smith increasingly is an anachronism on the pages of SI. He still makes 50 calls before he starts writing and never writes a piece less than 5,000 words long. He may write just two or three of these pieces every year but they are works of genius and, as the title of his latest anthology suggests, they go deep.

Sports Illustrated, like the rest of American sports media, skims the surface these days with little soundbite articles which won't tax the concentration of the average Playstation victim and more and more space is given over to the angry voices of those who have no real perspective on sport and, in general, no real grace when it comes to writing about it.

I know it is called the democratisation of media and the process is hailed as liberation from the tired old dinosaur elite of which I am a paid-up member, but personally I would much rather read 5,000 gracefully written words of somebody's post-interview insight into Pat Gilroy than wade through page after page of jerked-out opinion buttressed by unchecked facts.

In this year's collection of Best American Sportswritingthe introduction is written by guest editor William Nack, another one of my heroes, by virtue of his graceful and generous prose down through the years. He begins by recalling how, as a ne'er-do- well school kid in Chicago decades ago, he was seduced by the horses and then at 17 invited by his uncle who was a photographer with the Chicago Tribuneto attend the Kentucky Derby.

Nack recalls sitting on a bed in his uncle's room when his uncle's roommate, the columnist Dave Condon, burst through the door, notebooks and papers and pens spilling from his sweating personage. Condon sat down in jocks and vest and thrashed out the next day's column for the big city far away.

The words, when Condon had done with them and was happy, went by foot on "copy paper from the room in the Brown Hotel to Western Union and thence by wire to Chicago and thence back to Louisville by plane or train arriving at last as a finished broadsheet". Nack quotes the first paragraph of Condon's lovely words and you can feel the 17-year-old's rising joy as he reads that morning's Tribuneand discovers that thing in life which he wants to do. He rubbed shoulders that week not just with Condon but with giants like Shirley Povitch (who walked into the Washington Postas a kid and stayed there till his death), with Arthur Daley of the New York Timesand with the wonderful Red Smith who was then with the New York Herald Tribune.

Smith had just filed a pre-Derby story from Henry Clay's home in bluegrass country some miles away. It began.

"When you've got Silky Sullivan in your hair, Tim Tam on your mind and juleps on your conscience the treatment is to flee Louisville to this land of rolling green pastures and white rail fences and freshen up the metabolism."

And years later after college and Vietnam, Bill Nack found himself back at the Kentucky Derby trooping from stable to stable with Condon and Smith and Povitch and Daley and in the evenings sat in his jockeys and vest filing the words that would fill his broadsheet.

He is talking about Red Smith but could be talking about himself or many other greats of the American scene when he recalls the eye for details, the ear for a phrase, the ability to see humour where others saw none and the elegance of his words as things which set Red Smith apart.

And that's what is missing in the blog revolution. There are some fine new voices whom it is a pleasure to read but they compete with the wretched tin-ears, with the permanently raw and the ever-itchy victims of modern (male, mostly) anger, the voices who shout the loudest and the coarsest things, the athletes of the workplace laptop who can spring the fastest to hard conclusions.

USA Todayran a story on Friday about how NFL stadia are now encouraging fans to tout on each others' misbehaviour during games by sending texts to the powers that be. Said powers will then swing the surveillance cameras around and, if the behaviour matches the text, swoop in and remove the loudmouth who has been bothering you.

Pretty soon cranks will rule the world. I know, I know but get me a rocking chair and put Freddie on crooning about that ole Buttermilk Sky.

Happy Christmas, etc, etc!