Saturday, 27 July 2013

Simon Garfield- The Wrestling

The Wrestling
Faber & Faber
 Simon Garfield
1996 (Original)/ 2007 (Revised)

"Wayne Bridges: (On Les Kellet)I was at his house in Bradford when he was threading a wire through a cork and missed and threaded it through the web in his hand, between his thumb and his forefinger. He said, 'Oh dear, an accident, not to worry,' and he poured a bottle of iodine over a ball of cotton wool, and put it on the needle, and then threaded that through the same hole in his hand."

This might damage my street cred a little bit, but here goes; I'm a bit of a pro-wrestling fan. How much of a fan is something we'll leave for another day perhaps, because it just might get a little bit ugly. Any book entitled 'The Wrestling' then, is certainly up my alley. Well-respected author of non-fiction Simon Garfield's book is a very particular look on wrestling, though, because it's all about the history (or at least popular history) of professional wrestling in the United Kingdom, particularly its glory years on ITV television from the mid nineteen sixties through to its infamous cancellation in the late eighties. In this book Garfield talks extensively with some of the most influential and famous characters from the period, in an ambitious attempt to chronicle the rise and fall of the profession.

As a work of investigative journalism relying mostly on the words of such interviewed participants as Mick McManus and Shirley 'Big Daddy' Crabtree, Garfield does an excellent job of portraying the personalities on paper. The journey through the book is roughly chronological, with interesting sections on the mysterious and probably tall-story infested origins from the twenties onwards, but most of the content revolves around when the likes of McCarthy and Jackie Pollo got into things from the sixties onwards, and then Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and Kendo Nagasaki from the seventies. Unfortunately it's very hazily organised, partially thanks to the interviewees nostalgically reminiscing on incidents without giving any dates, and Garfield for not encouraging them to do so.

Easy! Easy!
Further damaging its credibility as historical documentation is the nature of the business itself. Though it's possible to guess based on their personalities, it's somewhat hard to distinguish the reality from the legend, particularly in regards to older subject matter. Wrestling was an extremely closed-off business back then to try and protect it from exposure as a fraud, and hype was absolutely everything. As a result some of the wrestlers are hilariously arrogant, sometimes endearingly so, but damaging their credibility. There were plenty of statements in this book that I didn't believe for a second., but, ironically, such tail telling actually adds to the aura of the book in regards to the bizarre second-rate carnival it represents.

Garfield really sells the larger than life aspect with a manner of respect, but the often more depraved aspects seep through. Plenty of the wrestlers were seriously odd people behind the scenes; kind of a cross between local dangerous weirdos and out of control rock stars. Some of the dirt, while not over-represented, offered the seediest insights. The legend of Les Kellet, for example, feared as an incredibly odd and unpredictable man gave the book not only some of its oddest stories, but a touch of poignancy as Garfield documents his attempts to contact Kellet for the book.

Obviously I enjoyed the book and took away a lot, but in my case it was preaching to the converted. It's far from an accurate textbook of events, but more of a collection of second-hand recollections and truths given from a bunch of old men who told myths for a living for decades. It is, however, through this an accurate representation of a period and a culture which is now almost completely dead; drowned through its own incompetence and inability to compete with the worldwide competition of the nineties. There was plenty I found to be incredibly endearing, plenty I found to scoff at, but it left me, at the end, with a greater respect for the mystique of it than ever before.