Jon Stock says no, not really.
Without wishing to sound like a serial killer, I track down all my hostile reviewers, sooner or later, particularly the anonymous ones (although I’m still working on “FleetStreetMan”). In this age of “sock puppetry”, when authors attack each other online under false names, it’s a necessary part of the job.
I can’t help thinking life’s too short. But then, that said, five years on, I am still smarting (on Austin’s behalf) over this thoroughly unfair review of Austin Healey’s autobiography, Me and My Mouth, by the Telegraph‘s Andrew Baker.
But his Mouth? Well, where does one start? It is a disgrace. At its best, the Mouth is foul: it is frequently to be heard abusing friends and foes alike, delivering a non-stop production line of put-downs, wisecracks and insults, usually based on the premise that the Mouth is brighter, wittier and more talented in every respect than anything else on the planet. Or on planet rugby, at any rate. What a strange world it is that these people occupy: a testosterone-dominated dystopia where the guys are constantly drinking, brawling, puking, drinking some more, smashing the place up, drinking, weeping, laughing, drinking, passing out, drinking and drinking some more. Oh, and occasionally playing rugby.
Shock, horror. Rugby players drink, swear, are sarcastic and mess around, unlike the denizens of Fleet Street sports desks. It certainly seems to be a surprise to Mr Baker.
The vacuity of it all is almost tragic, though more so for the players’ wives than the players themselves. The antics make early-period Martin Amis look like Jane Austen. Their idea of fun? Butting the club’s (female) secretary, then thwacking her on the behind with a broomstick. A standard night out? Forty-nine bottles of red wine (between seven), followed by a little light-hearted violence: “Later, I was fortunate enough to be sitting opposite Lewis [Moody] and noticed he was sitting with his legs apart, so I grabbed a heavy ashtray and Frisbeed it under the table straight into his groin. He was sick, which was one of the most satisfying moments of the whole trip.”
I don’t want to sound all Guardian, but isn’t this just a tiny bit sexist – the hand-wringing concern for the players’ wives (I’ve met a few, and they’re a bit tougher than Andrew Baker gives them credit for; in fact, I’d venture to suggest they’re a bit tougher than Andrew Baker), and that odd, parenthesised reference to the gender of the club secretary? Women, after all, cannot possibly take part in drinking games voluntarily. Can they? (For the record, it seems they can: Baker obviously missed the part where the secretary in question, Jo Hollis, is ‘lying on the floor, screaming with laughter…’ or where she ‘goes to wallop Benny [Kay] with a big haymaker. Only she misses straight over the top of his head and the swing takes her off her chair and onto the floor again, where she lies cackling and unable to right herself, like a dying fly.’)
Not particular edifying behaviour, I accept, as does Austin, clearly, later in the book. (I’ve been at journalists’ parties which make 49 bottles of red wine between seven look fairly tame, as it happens.) But the idea of an autobiography is that it’s the truth. We could have soft-soaped it all, but that would have been wrong.
When the review appeared, Austin rang me. He was upset, and I didn’t blame him. When you know a man, and have sat in his kitchen with his wife and children, drinking tea and chatting, I suppose you might be guilty of some bias in his favour. But, objectively, it sounded to me like a hatchet job, written by a journalist who hadn’t understood the book.
I emailed Baker to suggest that honest and open accounts of life at the pinnacle of sport (Jason Robinson aside, Austin was surely the most talented English back of the last 20 years?) are rare and should be encouraged. Apart from that, I pointed out that the whole book was really an extended mea culpa – that Austin wasn’t bragging about the drinking, and wasn’t proud of the way he treated people occasionally, and was at times ashamed of his own behaviour. Here’s one example, where Austin’s grouchy because of his non-selection of England’s pre-1999 world cup trip to Australia:
I went on holiday with Lou [his wife], Martin Corry, Craig Joiner [Leicester and Scotland winger] and their partners and for the first week I was unplayable. Snappy, irritable, the works. Lou took me to one side. ‘Look at yourself,’ she said. ‘Look at the way you’re going on. Now look at Cozza. He’s had another awesome season, and yet he never gets picked. Do you ever hear him whinge like this?’
That brought it home to me that I’d been a complete embarrassment. We all went out to dinner that night and I apologised for my bad attitude. It was a weakness of mine, and luckily I had a strong wife to set me right.
Here’s another – this time, upset at his non-selection for the 2003 world cup squad, he misses his own family birthday lunch to go on the lash:
I got absolutely smashed. We finished at the bar after the game and I suggested that we go to my local, purely so that I could walk home which was fairly selfish, too. We got taxis over there and started drinking again. The worst of it was that my family and some friends had driven all the way down to see me. I nipped home at one o’clock and said hello; my mum and dad and people were all trying to give me my birthday presents, but I was absolutely blotto and could hardly see straight. I mumbled some thanks and then said I was going back out.
‘But we’re having your birthday lunch,’ said my mum.
‘I’ll be there in a bit,’ I said, and left, walking back to the pub and carrying on drowning my sorrows with Freddie Tuilagi, George Chuter and my mate Ade.
In the end, they ate without me. I kept popping back for five minutes here and there but the lure of the pub was too strong. I feel pretty guilty, and embarrassed, about that now…
Here’s Austin at his lowest point:
The following day, I got up, went out and started drinking again… now I was in a mess, and I was on the verge of becoming an alcoholic.
Fortunately, I realised in time that it wasn’t the right thing to do. I was jeopardising my job, and possibly my family, and I needed to stop being such a soft arse. It was an easy way out and I’ve always seemed to take the easy way out and make excuses when times are hard; it was time for me to front up and just take it on the chin.
A complete embarrassment… selfish… guilty… weak… soft… I’ve always taken the easy way out: this is all quite hard to square with Baker’s characterisation of Austin’s self-image as being a ‘near-infallible husband, father, athlete, club man, team player’.
In fact, if you read the book (which is still available), there’s only one conclusion you can draw, and it’s not the one Andrew Baker arrived at. He begged to differ, but then perhaps he’s better suited to reviewing exciting theme parks (‘…raw thrills are the name of the game… the side-shows are feeble… food is basic… On the up-side, car parking is very cheap…).
Anyway, here are the three most recent reviews of Me and My Mouth from Amazon. (We haven’t tracked the writers down.)
* * * * * Me and my mouth Austin Healey, 5 Oct 2012 By PGM
As a fan of Scottish Rugby, i was apprehensive to read a book about The Auld Enemy, and in particular about a player who broke our hearts on more than one occaision. A fanastaic read, a very honest, frank and great autobiography. Its a pity Austin was let down by injury, the rugby world misses him. Read this book, its worth the suprises, he is right about his mouth!
* * * * * Fantastic Book, 24 Mar 2012 By cashy89
Anyone who is a fan of English rugby and followed rugby before the 2003 RWC win, will enjoy this book. I prevously read Martin Johnsons, Matt Dawson, Will Greenwood & Lawrence Dallaglio’s books aswell as this. I have to say this is possibly my favourite one, it includes all the banter and funny stories that you would expect from a tour, and also the struggles that dont appear on the tv set or on the pitch. If your pondering about buying it, just get it because you wont be disappointed.
* * * * More interesting and honest than most, 6 Jan 2011 By skinnyfatman
Austin Healey is Marmite – most people love or hate him. As someone who quite liked him before reading his book I’m not sure what I think now – he’s clearly massively conceited, but pretty self-aware, and knows that he rubs people up the wrong way all the time, but does it anyway – take him as you find him sort. The book is good and better than most rugby autobiogs I’ve read (which is quite a few) since it isn’t just ‘games that I’ve played in’ as a long list, it’s got lots of background and interesting opinion and back-stories to the biog throughout. More than anything though, it is stunningly honest and pulls no punches about what Healey thinks about anything, including himself. It also contains some interesting stuff about how difficult it is to maintain motivation and focus as a professional sportsperson. Overall well worth the read – the only rugby autobiog I’ve ever stayed up reading later than I meant to!