John Berry book review

While the world of public pronouncements gets blander and blander when it comes to saying something controversial, having a strong opinion or uttering something that will even vaguely offend, you could be forgiven for thinking that many people apparently prefer moderation and weasel words to honesty. Even contemporary British speedway has started to become a little too ‘corporate’ in some quarters and there’s an increased tendency for everyone to smile for the telly like a synchronised swimmer or to publicly pretend that nothing is at all wrong with this great sport. Luckily, John Berry’s latest book ‘More Confessions’ has just been published to correct this imbalance and should definitely create a few waves in responsible speedway circles.

Apparently John is a man who inspires strong opinions and, as his friend James Easter notes in his introduction, “he can still provoke a full scale riot in a telephone box.” Prior to its publication someone remarked dismissively to me that “Berry had nothing left to say” after his first, widely acclaimed ‘Confessions of a Speedway Promoter’ book. You only have to read the first few pages of his latest opus to appreciate that this is certainly not the case and that he is again going to ride a wide variety of his hobbyhorses. And jolly good hobbyhorses they are too as he ranges widely over some aspects of his own career and those of others, the history of the sport, provides his own review of where we find ourselves now, plus where the sport should think about going in the future if it’s to survive in a vibrant form in this country. If the first book was about John Berry (“me in speedway”) then he’s keen to stress that the latest book is “more about the speedway in me.”

Refreshingly, he’s never afraid to settle old scores or to highlight shortcomings in other peoples words or deeds but, more importantly, he also praises many different people fulsomely (for example he’s a huge fan of Peter Adams who he frequently lauds and whom he describes as the “cleverest and hardest to get the better of” and also believes that John Louis should be honoured for his services to the sport). The book assembles a rich cast of characters that, if this were a pantomime would see some loudly booed by the audience, or locked in the stocks, whereas others would run the risk of beatification. Most tellingly, though quick to analyse others John is a man unafraid to acknowledge his own failings but also equally quick to identify and praise his own strengths. In less capable hands this would be a handicap to the enjoyment of any book and definitely will be if the reader is already prejudiced against John Berry or what you perceive to be his outlook and stance. However, I believe that it’s his acuity about people – their individual characters and foibles, their all too human emotions and failings – that shows his gift as a writer and makes this book come alive for the careful reader. Plus there are his many unique turns of phrase to entertain and his perceptive insights into many speedway matters that you thought you knew everything about already.

Nonetheless, it’s a difficult book to categorise since it’s a varied mix that is part memoir, part history and, most enjoyably, part manifesto for the future with a bit of soapbox and some cutting asides thrown in. That said, it’s definitely a book that everyone should consider buying if only for the chapter entitled “King for a Day” which divides into two incisive parts, “Spotting the Problems” and “The Reconstruction.” I’m sure that not everyone featured in this book is going to always feel that comfortable to read about themselves viewed through the eyes of this author but, approached with an open mind, for most readers this will be a real page turner that repays the effort of a quick read or of earnest study.

What exactly do you get for your money? Well, there are 256 pages that present various topics that include ruminations upon who should be rewarded by the honours system as well as the cast of possible dinner party companions at John’s house. Though, as the book makes clear, many characters he has encountered have previously blotted their proverbial copybooks, so it’s safe to say that John Postlethwaite (“I cannot help but feel that Postlethwaite fell across speedway. I suspect it would have made little difference to him had it been wellie-throwing or conkers.”), Dick Barrie, Len Silver or Ian Thomas (“it would have been uncharitable of me to involve him and me in legal proceedings because even now we both seem to enjoy scoring points from each other and to be quite honest I enjoy the rough and tumble, but he really ought to be more careful and get his jibes factually correct.”) won’t get to hear the Berry record collection any time soon.

They all might miss out on some nosh and convivial conversation, but as readers we’re again treated (as we were in the last) to many of the lyrics of the key songs in John’s life – often appositely chosen and sometimes rewritten for even greater effect. There’s also a sincere and often witty critique of every track he’s ever visited (“the whole place had the feel of a badly operated breakers yard”) as well as another chapter that addresses that well-worked speedway book canard, ‘who is the greatest rider of all time?’ It’s a question answered by an analysis that considers skill, equipment and mental strength (“Mich always seemed to remain an artist”). There’s even a quirky but pleasantly excitable look at his favourite all time referees – along with analysis of the worst ones – and he’s particularly strong on obscure long forgotten regionally based referee’s from the 1970s. We’re treated to various insights into the history of speedway bike and engine design as well as a diverse range of topics from youth development to the impact of technology (“the margins for error for the riders are shrinking all the time”). These chapters are never dull – even when some of the topics, people or events have slipped from memory or into the mists of time – and they’re enlivened with wit, direct comments and enjoyable digressions.

Judged solely on the evidence of this book, John Berry is a passionate man and this communicates itself throughout the book where he can touchingly get just as worked up about still keenly remembered slights as he can about the perceived modern day inadequacies and iniquities of UK speedway administration (“speedway in the UK might be a bit of a joke at the moment, but it certainly isn’t funny”). He even actually praises (!) the BSI run SGP series before he goes on to be slightly more critical (“the SGP organisers seem as if they ran out of ideas some time ago…on behalf of the speedway public, the professional promoters and those riders who don’t get selected to take part in the BSI circus, I resent the hijacking of the best dates, the best riders and their best efforts. I object to every other competition being reduced to, at best, second class status”).

This is a book that you have to read to make your mind up about for yourself. Hopefully, if enough people do so, then some of his wide-ranging prognostications might start to provoke change, debate or even provide a possible starting point for a blueprint for future action.

Love him or loathe him, this book shows that you definitely can’t ignore him!

Despite his strenuous claims to the contrary that this really is his “last book”, I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment from this provocative writer before too long.

John Berry will be signing copies of his book at the Brighton Bonanza. Alternatively, you can order a copy – post free in the UK – on the Retro Speedway credit card hotline (01708) 734502, online at www.retro-speedway.com or by post from 103 Douglas Road, Hornchurch, Essex RM11 1AW (cheque payable to Retro Speedway)

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