Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Game on! Some of my Favourite Fictional Sports

This week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM was inspired by the North Manchester Games (which took place in Boggart Hole Clough on Saturday afternoon). Given all the real sports that were taking place in the Clough during the afternoon, I thought it would be pretty cool to look at some of my favourite fictional sports of the show. You can catch the show again on the player below, but as promised here’s a list of the books I featured.

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold (1935)

As there’s been a lot of promotion of the Sport England This Girl Can initiative, I thought it would be a good idea to start with a ‘This Girl Can’ classic for today’s show. National Velvet is the story of Velvet Brown, a teenage girl who becomes taken with the idea of riding a horse to victory in the Grand National. Along with her friend Mi, her mother Araminty (who once found fame swimming the Channel) and, of course, The Piebald, Velvet hatches a plan to disguise herself and enter the race.

Bagnold’s novel was adapted into a film in 1944, starring a very young Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney and Angela Lansbury. The film is a fairly faithful adaptation of the horse-racing plot, but the novel offers so much more in its presentation of Velvet’s chaotic and quirky family. It’s a charming book, and definitely worth a read.

The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson (1999)

Something a bit closer to home now… Jacobson’s semi-autobiographical comic novel is set in the 1950s and tells the story of Oliver Walzer, a shy young Jewish lad from Manchester who discovers a talent for table tennis. We follow Oliver through his awkward teenage years – and Jacobson really doesn’t hold back on just how awkward some of his experiences are – to his acceptance to Cambridge University. And through it all, Oliver is determined to prove that he really is the ‘mighty’ Walzer, at least when he wields his paddle.

Jacobson’s novel combines self-deprecating humour, larger-than-life characters, slapstick, (almost) gross-out comedy, and biting satire. It’s a coming-of-age novel, but told from the knowing perspective of an older narrator looking back on the follies of youth. There’s a great sense of humour here, but also a wonderful sense of place evoked in both the descriptions and the language used. This is definitely an appropriate choice for a show inspired by the North Manchester Games.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

Okay, so I really chose this book for one chapter in particular. I don’t think Carroll’s classic needs much of an introduction, not least because it’s already been saved for post-apocalyptic posterity in the Library at the End of Days. For this week’s show, I was most interested in the third chapter: ‘A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale’. The Caucus-Race is suggested by the Dodo, after Alice and her animal companions emerge soaking wet from the pool of tears. It’s a nonsense-race, obviously, which has no real start or finish. But at the end everyone gets a prize, so that’s nice.

I know it’s a bit of a cheat choosing a book for just one passage, but Carroll’s book is such a classic it’s totally worth it. Also, sometimes it’s good to remember that you don’t need rules or structure, you can just run around for a bit and then stop.

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’

The Turke and Sir Gawain (c.1500)

Something a bit different now, though it’s still comic in its own way. The Turke and Sir Gawain is a late-fifteenth-century romance that survives in the Percy Folio. Although the poem has been mangled a bit (part of the manuscipt was torn up for firelighters, meaning that around half of the text is missing), it’s a cracking story that’s sadly underrated. The court of King Arthur is interrupted in its festivities by a sinister ‘Turke’, who demands the knights enter into a challenging game. Only Gawain agrees (obviously, he is Arthur’s greatest knight after all), and Turke insists that Gawain accompany him on a quest for one year to fulfil his half of the agreement. They travel to the Isle of Man, which is people by a race of Muslim giants – lead by a scathing, but rather cordial, Sultan – and Gawain and the Turke need to team up to defeat the giants and rescue their prisoners.

I chose this medieval narrative for my sport-themed show because of a bizarre tennis game that takes place in the second half of the poem. The Manx giants are determined to prove that Gawain is weaker than them, so they challenge to various feats of strength including a game of tennis with a brass ball. And then they decide there’s something even better they could use as a ball…

Okay, this might have marked the point when the sports on the show got a bit darker…

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell (1924)

As a vegetarian and someone who is anti-blood sports, it would have been utterly inappropriate for me to feature a book about hunting animals for sport on the show. So I didn’t feature a book about hunting animals for sport…

The trope of humans hunting humans for entertainment has proved quite a popular one, featuring in novels, films, television programmes and cartoons. I decided to feature one of the earliest examples I could find. Connell’s 1924 short story is about Sanger Rainsford, a big game hunter who finds himself on the other side of the equation when he is stranded on an island with a man called General Zaroff. Zaroff has a game he likes to play with visitors to the island, but at least he always gives them a head start! Instead of heading off to Rio to hunt jaguars, Rainsford finds himself being hunted by a man who believes ‘Life is for the strong’.

If you’re a fan of the ‘hunting humans for sport’ subgenre, I’d also recommend Robert Sheckley’s short story ‘Seventh Victim’ (1953), which offers an interesting take on the subject, and of course Richard Bachman’s 1982 novel The Running Man.

And then, in a not dissimilar vein, there’s always…

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

Hey! It’s about sport! There’s an arena, and competitors, and training…

Collins’s best-selling dystopian YA novel is probably well-enough known not to need much introduction. It’s the story of Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who has to compete in the brutal annual Hunger Games, a competition in which 24 young people are confined to an arena and forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses. While the book has lots of common themes of YA fiction – a rebellious heroine, a potential love triangle, unexpected alliances and friendships – it’s the dystopian element that really fascinates me. Panem, the ‘world’ of the Hunger Games is fully of post-apocalyptic tyranny and strangely familiar inequalities. What I really enjoyed, though, was the way in which the Hunger Games – for all their apparent purpose as a ‘tribute’ to ensure social stability – were really just a reality TV show to keep the masses compliant. President Snow (the despotic ruler who presides over the annual bloodbath and its associated spectacle) really does understand how to use panem et circenses to control his people.

The Hunger Games was followed by two sequels: Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010). And if you fancy reading more about young people forced to battle to death for a watching audience, I’d also recommend Koushan Takami’s Battle Royale (1999) and Bachman’s The Long Walk (1979).

To find out more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show here:


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