Did you know that during the siege of the Iranian embassy, one of the great British televisual events of the 20th century, the BBC cut between live footage of the SAS storming the building and live coverage of Alex Higgins and Cliff Thorburn’s fags-and-booze-sponsored 1980 World Snooker Championship final at the Crucible Theatre (thereby enabling commentator Ted Lowe’s pant-wettingly good, once-in-a-lifetime line: ‘And now from one embassy to another’)?
Did you know that after Seb Coe lost to Steve Ovett in the 800-metres final at the Moscow Olympics, Coe’s father sidled up to his son at the post-race press conference and announced, loud enough for journalists to hear, ‘you ran like a cunt’?
Did you know (and there are just so many did-you-knows in this book) that when John Curry appeared at the 1976 Sports Journalists’ Association dinner, which took place just before Christmas, to be honoured for his figure-skating gold medal, he was introduced with the words ‘Here comes the fairy for the tree’? Or that Curry was then defended by the comedian Eric Morecambe, who shouted out, ‘Disgraceful!’ – an incident that, just when you thought it wasn’t possible to love Eric Morecambe any more, confirms that it is?
The answer to all of these questions is likely to be ‘no’. In which case, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, billed as an academic insight into sport and the 1980s, should fulfil its perhaps unintended secondary function, which is to provide a relentless stream of engrossing period detail about the pop–sport cultural nexus during the decade.
This is a long book: four hundred meticulously referenced pages cut into fourteen sections, each headed with a 1980s song title or lyric, from ‘People Are People’ by Depeche Mode (for a chapter about racism) to ‘Let’s Get Physical’ by Olivia Newton John (for one about civil unrest). The central theme is one of sports writing’s favourite topics: sport as both a mirror of society and a catalyst for change. The slant here is that Roger Domeneghetti, a journalist and university lecturer, has identified the 1980s as the period of original sin, the moment when sport shifted from background noise to cultural bellwether and then into a more active entity, out there sticking its fingers into the mix and helping to decide how things are going to look round here.
The reader expects a worthy polemic, but that never really comes. Instead, the book turns out to be an entertaining romp, a comfortable armchair ride crammed with colourful detail – so much so that at times it feels like the literary equivalent of one of those fast-cut talking-heads nostalgia shows where Sharon from EastEnders speaks about space hoppers over footage of Shakin’ Stevens opening a hospice. So we get Noel Edmonds, the Green Goddess and Maggie Thatcher saying ‘rejoice’.
If there is a blind spot here, it is the fact that, while sport has, as David Goldblatt pointed out brilliantly in The Age of Football, become the popular culture, it has also served to create books like this. Everybody Wants to Rule the World doesn’t stand outside this process; it is the process, just as the appearance of university courses for which this book will become a set text (and, with no offence to Lionel Trilling or John Carey, as sets texts go it is an absolute zinger) is in itself a remarkable development. Here is a book that should probably contain a section on itself and others like it.
At which point, it is probably worth recapping where we are with sport and literature, a relationship that simmered on the edge of things for almost a century before blooming into life as sport began the journey towards its current state as the world’s most lucrative entertainment product. A first shallow step came in the early days of codified sport, when evening sheets and pink ’uns circulated around Victorian pubs and stations, recording scores, news and gossip. Over time, something that felt like literature began to creep in. At one point in the 1950s, The Guardian had the celebrated academic and writer C L R James filing three hundred words on Lancashire versus Derbyshire, alongside music critic turned press box doyen Neville Cardus doing something similar.
Books about sport appeared here and there, from Arthur Hopcraft’s classic The Football Man (1968), through Hunter Davies’s wonderful The Glory Game (1972). The United States has had a stronger tradition of sports literature, as befits a country more willing to romanticise its national sports. As long ago as 1916, You Know Me Al, a satirical diary of a fictional baseball player by the hard-drinking sports hack Ring Lardner, was being lionised by the Bloomsbury set as a modernist literary work – and rightly so: Lardner was a comic genius. Lift-off in the UK came in the early 1990s with Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, which, for all the hype that surrounded it, is a really fantastic, genre-busting book. All Played Out by Pete Davies, notionally a diary of the 1990 World Cup, is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. And in the years since there have been certain other texts that capture the same sport–culture dynamic, notably Anyone But England by Mike Marqusee (2005), on cricket and postcolonialism.
These days, publishing houses are packed out with hopeful new offerings of books like this, so much so that when Domeneghetti states in his introduction that it is necessary to ‘acknowledge that modern sport is a microcosm of society’, you kind of wonder what else it’s supposed to be – or even to long for a book that is just about kicking a ball or throwing a dart. Now that would be ground-breaking. The sections that follow are entertaining and freshly detailed. Thatcher, the cover star, is a little under-examined. Her distaste for sport seemed at the time a kind of philistinism, like hating music or arthouse cinema. Given the subsequent fawning over celebrity athletes by every beaming goon to serve as prime minister, from Tony Blair doing keep-ups with Kevin Keegan to David Cameron forgetting mid-speech which football team he pretends to support, it now feels oddly refreshing.
There is an engrossing section on the stifling of women’s sport. Can it really be so recent that Lord Denning ruled in a UK court of law that an eleven-year-old girl shouldn’t play football with boys? The horrors of the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters are calmly detailed, tragedies that really do speak to the decay and carelessness of the age. If Domeneghetti never really gets around to articulating specifically how the world he re-creates has informed the world we see now, there is enough detail here to allow you to draw your own conclusions, and indeed to pass a few illuminating hours before the comforting oblivion of daily, deregulated, digitally published sport kicks in again.