A while back a friend remarked that a piece I’d written – on cricket probably though, perhaps, darts – was “worthy of Frank Keating”. I can’t say if the compliment was earned but it was appreciated mightily. To be compared to Keating, on however dubious a basis, was the kind of pleasantness guaranteed to put a smile on your face. That sounds vainglorious but it’s a really a measure of how good Frank Keating was.
Keating, who has died aged 75, was one of this country’s great sportswriters. For many years he was the Spectator’s sports columnist and his weekly epistle, though the last thing in the magazine, was always among the first treats to be unwrapped each Thursday.
Though he moonlighted here, his chief renown was justly won at the Guardian. As you might expect, Matthew Engel has written a typically lovely tribute for his old friend and colleague.
Hack is often considered a pejorative label but it need not always be so. One aspect of the word’s meaning is a writer who can turn his hand to any subject at whatever notice. Keating could do that and Guardian and Spectator readers benefited enormously from this all-rounder’s style. He could spin a playful column from even the least-promising thread. Some, I suppose, considered his prose occasionally more rococo than might have been strictly necessary; rather more simply enjoyed his linguistic flourishes.
In his later years, I suppose he was something of a nostalgist. That too is often deemed a weakness but it need not be so. Keating’s columns – a delightful collection of which can be found in the Guardian archive – frequently explored overlooked or forgotten parts of sporting history from whose recollection any true sports fan could only profit. He appeared to have an encylopedic knowledge of sporting history; the product, I fancy, of an impressive memory and an even more impressive library.
In an age dominated by television this was especially useful. Sky would have us believe football in England only began 20 years ago. The BBC is not much better. Keating reminded us this was not so.
Though a thorough professional in his work, he retained the amateur’s enthusiasm for sport. Danny Blanchflower’s famous line that the game “is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom” applied to Keating’s work too.
Not for nothing was Tom Graveney Keating’s favourite cricketer. This is worthy of Cardus: “Our Tom was of the orchard rather than the forest, blossom susceptible to frost but breathing in the sunshine. Taking enjoyment as it came, he gave enjoyment which still warms the winters of memory. Still the hero.”
Some aspects of modern sport – its avarice, its abandonment of its own traditions and history – plainly pained Keating. But he retained the schoolboy’s sense of wonder. The game was about heroes. Dreams were to be followed; the quest for the epic something to be cherished. There were halcyon days too numerous to be counted. Romance was the essence of sport.
Much of this, again, made Keating something of an anachronism. It also made him valuable, even necessary. He wrote from the perspective of the besotted enthusiast. That viewpoint is increasingly sidelined in modern sports coverage. Television, with its insistence that only those who have played the game at a high level can be expected to have anything useful to say about it, is the worst offender but even the quality newspapers are increasingly stuffed with the views of former players.
Some of them can write (especially the cricketers) but the ex-players’ view, though often useful, is not the only perspective that matters. The amateur – again, not a pejorative term – has a point worth hearing. This was a point Peter Oborne made on the (equally sad) death of Christopher Martin-Jenkins. The cult of “professionalism” has actually made our sports journalism less colourful and more anodyne than it used to be.
What, as a great man wrote, do they know of cricket who only cricket know? Keating had a balanced approach. He knew the importance of sport – how, he asked, could you write a history of Victorian England without once mentioning WG Grace? – but he also appreciated that sport was great and pure escapism. Something in which to lose yourself before returning to the drearier necessities of everyday life.
That was a great gift. He had a fancy for the underdog and, above all, a generous heart. He wrote with warmth and wit, inviting his readers to share, above all, in the sheer glorious fun of it all.