Wonderful Times review by Ian McMillan

The Times review by Ian McMillan, 28th June 2008

THERE ARE CERTAIN sports that seem to be shaped by their histories and their settings just for the purpose of lyrical description: county cricket, with its long afternoons in the sun, its trundle to the pavilion as the rain threatens, its slowly changing scoreboards and its dozing gents and ladies reading the newspaper under hats made of straw; professional football, with its drama and its excitement and the painful way that glory can turn to farce in the instant it takes someone to miss a penalty under floodlights that glow like jewels.

There’s a literature of mountaineering and sailing, and novels have been written about horse riding and rugby league and tennis. But speedway? Speedway as a source of poetic prose and philosophical discussion? There’s certainly been a bit of a speedway-shaped gap in the shelves marked Sporting Literature. Until now, that is.

Jeff Scott’s new book Concrete for Breakfast is possibly Speedway’s War and Peace, or its Ulysses, or, in some of the chapters, its local newspaper gossip page. It’s the epic by which all other books on the sport (there aren’t that many, let’s be honest, and Scott has written most of them) will be judged.

Scott is writer-in-residence at Eastbourne Speedway and he has a love/hate (or more accurately obsession/exasperation) relationship with the sport. He has previously published a couple of fine volumes, Showered in Shale and Shale Britannia, that take us inside a society that often seems hidden from view unless you’re a fan, and now in Concrete for Breakfast, he takes us on an odyssey across the 2007 season, to every stadium that staged the sport in a year that was blighted by the soaking summer and the inevitable feeling that here was a way of life heading for some kind of sunset.

As Scott explains in his foreword, Concrete continues his examination of the philosophical quest “What is speedway?” and the answers come tumbling out in a prose that possesses a kind of petrol-driven Dirty Realism, as though Raymond Carver had decided to turn up at a speedway meeting in Swindon on a dank March day with his notebook.

The picture that Scott paints is of a knowledgeable but shrinking community; as he writes: “the typical speedway supporter remains loyal but drawn from an ageing demographic that probably spells disaster for the longevity of the sport in the medium to long term”. Later he talks of a particular enthusiast’s “links to the salad days of the sport when it was wonderfully vibrant and truly a national pastime”.

The book does seem at times to be simply a catalogue of one more rain-spattered visit to one more mist-covered stadium, where one more gang of self-deprecating and bantering volunteers are waiting to prepare the track for one more afternoon of minority sport. Did I mention the rain and the mist from Sittingbourne to Scunthorpe? I think I did. “Nowadays it’s a minority sport served up in often decaying and poorly equipped stadia”, as Scott writes, mistily.

If you persist with Concrete you come to love the people whom Scott writes about and you come to share his enthusiasm, and a little of his exasperation. You see that in the end this is more than a book about a pastime that happens to be down on its luck. It’s a book about the persistence of the human spirit, about the odd juxtaposition of hours of hard physical work involving a family of volunteers who have been involved with speedway for years, and moments of extreme physical danger with fragile parts of the rider’s body inches from the unforgiving ground.

What Scott is really good at is detail, sacks and sacks of gorgeous detail, and a love of the specific and precise language of speedway, with its lay downs and dirt deflectors and double point tactical rides. He has a keen and sympathetic eye for human failings that somehow seem to be magnified around the track.

In one chapter, for instance, he describes the visit of a well-meaning BBC team representing the Reading and Writing scheme to the Isle of Wight meeting. The BBC Radio Solent presenter’s dress “indicated that she thought a speedway meeting might have something in common with a world premiere”, and there’s a splendid evocation of a race that Scott relates as “both a collector’s item and typifies the rough-and-tumble, needs must, show-must-go-on attitude that is one of the enduring appeals of speedway racing at Conference League level”.

Scott makes the sport seem somehow down to earth and heroic at the same time: “The initial running of the race has Brendan Johnson knocked off on the first bend and a rerun called by the referee for first-bend bunching…it would be safe to say that he appears not to be at all happy and, though normally a placid young man, it should be noted that he has martial arts expertise…”

Read this book for a glimpse of a lost tribe, for an examination of collectivism and individuality somehow working together, for endless descriptions of English weather, and for a brave attempt to pinpoint a particular branch of human endeavour that often seems to be far from the centre of things.

Concrete for Breakfast: More Tales from the Shale by Jeff Scott
Methanol Press, £20; 302pp

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