For several years I filmed at the ceremony for the William Hill sponsored Sports Book of the Year competition, writes Vernon Grant. Meeting the authors that had made the final list. Many of those brief interviews are available via my YouTube channel.
Through this, I read some excellent sports books and met some talented authors and fascinating people. Some years I agreed with the final decision of the judging panel. At other times I despaired. For the record, the one that truly got away was the superb ‘The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.’ A literary victim of a panel not agreeing and the dreaded most second votes way of settling an argument. If you see that 1999 book in your local charity shop, buy it!
I’ll not be able to interview the authors who have made the shortlist to win the award in 2020. But I have read the book written by one of the finalists and I highly recommend you do likewise.
‘The Breath of Sadness’ by Ian Ridley is the book I have read in the fastest time during the past year. That’s a compliment. My daily form study work for VG Tips subscribers means that I do not have the amount of spare time I would like to read books of all types. Usually it’s a few pages a night before I turn off the light and go to sleep. To have the luxury of reading a book from cover to cover, without having to put it down too often, is almost unheard of for me these days.
I was determined to read ‘The Breath of Sadness’ differently. In part because I have had the pleasure of interviewing the author in the past, at the home he shared with the much missed subject of the book, Vikki Orvice. One of the finest writers on a variety of sports. Long before we met properly, I did find myself at the same events as Vikki a couple of times. I confess that I was either too shy or too in awe to approach her and praise her work.
When I got around to interviewing Ian Ridley, years after he’d been a guest on a Sky Sports News show I produced, Vikki was there and Ian introduced me. That smile of hers had me fumbling for words once more. There was always so much I wanted to talk to Vikki about. I either never had the nerve or got around to asking. A feeling which, oddly, I share with her husband (I agree with Ian when it comes to disliking the term ‘widower’).
In this must read book Ian expresses his regret at how much has been left unsaid. How many questions he would like to ask Vikki now, if only he could. How he wishes they had spent more evenings sat together watching the telly, reading or talking. A lesson I have taken on board after reading this brilliant book. My mobile devices are put away so that I can watch television or films – even crap ones – with the love of my life. Or simply sit and read our own preference when it comes to books.
It’s possible my other half thinks I’m a bit odd to want to read books about death, illness, depression etc. In my defence, I don’t read lots of them. I do like a book to inform, educate and to make me laugh. That’s why Alan Bennett and his diaries will always have a place on my bookshelf. Why Oscar Wilde’s finest output will never leave me.
‘The Breath of Sadness’ offers insight, advice and, yes, some laughs. At her funeral, largely organised by Vikki before her passing, Ian found the strength to speak. He told of the sports dinner at which Ian and Vikki sat next to the late England football manager, Bobby Robson. Himself no stranger to cancer. Robson asked Vikki what type of cancer she had. She replied: “Well, they think the primary was breast but it could have been ovarian.”
“Them, pet,” Bobby said, “are the only two I’ve not had.”
I didn’t buy ‘The Breath of Sadness’ for the cricket. That sport had left me behind years ago. I loved the Sunday one day games BBC2 televised in the 1970’s and in the 1980’s the much missed by me Yorkshire and England cricketer David Bairstow became one of my best friends. That led to me seeing what went on behind the scenes of the then dysfunctional Yorkshire club and also meant I was at Headingley for the famous Botham test match. Despite that, the sport has never set my pulses racing.
Vikki’s penultimate tweet had been a reply to me on another sporting subject. Her agreeing with something I had to say made my day. It left me hoping that in time I might get to know her better and that any second visit to their home would see me interview her about all manner of things. But time stopped. I was too late. She was gone. I had let that opportunity pass.
I wanted to read this book so that I could learn more about Vikki. I knew of her work. I knew she supported the rival football team to my own in the city of Sheffield. But there was so much more I felt the need to learn about her. Ian told the hundreds who attended Vikki’s funeral that she was “gregarious, tender, vulnerable, warm hearted and funny with a smile as wide as the M1 at Tinsley Viaduct.”
I also wanted to understand what Ian went through, for fear that I too may one day end up being the bereaved one. I had hoped I would learn something from this book. More so than from any of the plethora of self help books published. Books I would never buy. His book taught me plenty. Not least about the anger that follows loss. His chapter call March Madness is an honest and searing account of how he lost it during that month.
So by now you’re thinking this book will depress you. That it will not be the uplifting read you want during these troubled times. Perhaps you fear giving it as a Christmas present in case a friend or loved one gets the wrong idea. Stop right there! Inevitably the chapters dealing with Vikki’s passing are emotional. Ian describes her actual death in detail and if you don’t shed a tear you may care to check yourself for a heartbeat.
But what happens next? How on earth does someone who has watched their loved one die in front of them deal with the next stage? How do they handle bereavement? What I learned from Ian’s book is that it will likely not be the way you might have anticipated. Any notions you may have now about how you would handle bereavement can be dismissed. People rally around. Of course they do. All with the best of intentions. But when the funeral is over and the hundreds who have attended have gone back to their lives, then what?
Ian went through the often talked about stages of loss, including disbelief and anger. In time, he decided to go back to some of the locations he and Vikki had visited together and he often did so when there was a county cricket game taking place. That can’t have been easy. Indeed, it wasn’t. Some days he left his hotel early, wanting to be back home where the spirit of Vikki lived on. I understood why he checked out of accommodation early when the hotel was busy with those in the same town for a celebratory night out on the town. Imagine trying to come to terms with such a loss while having to listen to others enjoying themselves.
Ian sat at cricket grounds and listened to the type of trivial talk you can often hear at such venues. He heard people moaning about things that really do not matter. He must have been tempted to grab them by the shirt collar and say something like: “My wife has just died from cancer, you silly ******. He didn’t.
So why, I hear some of you ask, is this a finalist in a competition to find the best sports book of the year? After all, it sounds grief heavy. No. It’s well balanced. That cannot have been an easy undertaking. There’s plenty in there for sports fans. Not just those who love to watch cricket. Never forget the variety of sports Vikki covered for newspapers. Her love of athletics, her friendships with the great and good of sport. Her highlight being that summer evening when British athletics was dripping in gold at the London Olympics.
There will be people who think twice about buying this book because they presume it to be depressing. It is not. I found it to be uplifting. Ultimately a positive read. I came away so glad that I read it. Indeed, I shall read it again. I can pay no higher tribute. To the book, its author and to Vikki Orvice. Regardless of whether or not ‘The Breath of Sadness’ hits its William Hill Sports Book of the Year competitors for six, it’s already a winner in my book.