The Wrestling, Simon Garfield (2nd edition)

With hindsight this book had a massive impact on me when I read it back in 1996. Not that it rekindled any childhood desire to take up the grapple game – I may be a big lad but I wince at combing out a knot in my hair, so I’m happy to leave these stories of dislocated shoulders, crushed spines and huge buttock abscesses on the page. It didn’t awake a love of wrestling in me either – the sport existed in a vague twilight off to one side of my interests as a kid, and the more theatrical American version never even had the dubious appeal of Big Daddy or Giant Haystacks. Nothing Simon Garfield wrote changed that.

What the book did was open my eyes to oral history as a way of telling a story. Even this turned into a dead end of sorts – I was crap at interviews when I worked as a music writer, so the format was never for me. And of the dozens I’ve read, the only one near to The Wrestling in quality is Garfield’s own superb retelling of the Banister era at Radio 1, The Nation’s Favourite.

Even so, what Garfield does here is fantastic – it has the same combination of theatre and spontaneity, braggadocio and blood, as the great matches he describes. Voices weave in and out, sometimes given space to tell stories their way, sometimes left to undercut or contradict each other. Digressions, figures of speech, grudges, industry myths – all left in with minimal commentary, giving the impression of immense pride taken in grinding, dangerous, skilful work but also a sport in which almost everyone is working an angle, in-ring or out of it.

The amity of the opening chapter, at a wrestlers’ reunion, hides a web of tensions which Garfield teases out – at the time he wrote it, British wrestling was in steep decline after its TV-driven heyday of the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Everyone knows that the sudden loss of TV exposure killed the sport, but there are plenty of fingers to point around what caused ITV to pull the plug on a one-time cash cow. Is Jackie Pallo to blame, for writing a bestseller exposing some of the open secrets around the theatre of wrestling? Is Big Daddy’s outsize success the tipping point, shredding the final sporting elements? Is the problem a lack of charismatic performers to follow the generation of Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki? Is it a bit of everything?

Throughout the book there’s a sense of a business that bumped along never having a real plan: lots of svengalis but no visionaries. Near the end one promoter’s big plan for the revival of UK wrestling is a tag team inspired by the Power Rangers, and inspired by here means ‘flagrantly copying’: it never seems to occur to him what the inevitable legal end of this wheeze is going to be.

In some ways the book is just another chapter in British wrestling’s endless cycle of exploitation. Garfield’s interviewees are using him to settle scores; he’s using them to tell a garish story. A sad endnote reveals that the writer was blacklisted by the men he’d idolised, who didn’t like how the book portrayed them. And I feel like a lot of The Wrestling wouldn’t be written in the same way today. There’s little probing – as there surely would be now – of the prejudices in the business. There’s enough on the treatment of Black and women wrestlers, and on the industry’s queasy relationship with homosexuality, to make you realise there’s a whole lot more to tell, but Garfield mostly sidesteps those areas.

Similarly, the book’s seamy enough to cover the fact that Garfield isn’t digging deeply into the sleazier elements – bribery, corruption, exploitation, groupies. At the end there are interviews with a 15-year-old rising star who breezily tells us his Mum is a bit worried. No shit!

And there’s at least one genuine monster lurking in the line-up of pantomime villains. The first photo you see in The Wrestling is of Jimmy Savile, with the caption “I was very bad”. Too right. The double-take a reader does at this is hardly Garfield’s fault – even this revised edition came out a few years before Savile was exposed as Britain’s most ferocious celebrity child abuser. It’s a reminder that – as another interviewee says – all wrestlers are liars. Some lies are worse than others, but Garfield creates an overall impression of dishonesty and tall tales which means he never has to tug too hard at any single thread.

Even so, I loved the book – and still love it, even now I’m more aware of the works behind it and the places it doesn’t venture. There’s enough truth, enough charisma, enough enthusiasm among these people, given the chance to tell their stories in their own words, that it’s hard not to agree with Garfield that this stuff mattered: it’s a story worth the telling. And it’s wonderfully told.