We live in strange times. A man with serious mental health issues has become President of the United States; Britain hurtles towards a political decision which will set the country back in all sorts of ways for the next 20-odd years; and a publisher saw fit to commit the commercial and aesthetic suicide of publishing a book on wrestling by that well-known historian, Jim Smallman: author of such classics as The Football Neutral: Season 2013/14: One Comedian. One Season. Lots of Football. Even more staggeringly, the Times Literary Supplement chose to review said tome. Jesus H Christ. Jeremy Treglown would be turning in his grave. [He’s not dead yet – Ed.]
As readers of my occasional Indy Corner musings – not to mention the previous paragraph – may have gleaned, I’m no great fan of Smallman. But I do slightly sympathise with him given the conclusion of the aforementioned book review. The conclusion read: “for all the zest and passion of I’m Sorry I Love You, the real meaning of the world of no sells, curtain jerkers, and marks remain elusive.” My sympathy lies in the fact that it is indeed rather difficult to try and communicate the exact flavour of the wrestling business to someone who hasn’t really engaged with it.
For instance, how do you explain to Joe Public how in the wrestling, a story about one man killing his neighbour’s dog and feeding it to him unknowingly is considered a hilarious ‘rib’? How do you explain to them why anyone would quite happily take a small piece of razor blade and intentionally cut their own forehead with it? Is there any real-life equivalent to “wrestler’s court”? The examples trip off the tongue.
What exacerbates all this of course, is the notion that wrestling is somehow beyond the pale. Part of this undoubtedly comes from it’s hybrid nature – a mix of athleticism and theatre, a combination it’s hard to think of another form of. (Ballet would be the most obvious analogy: except, as Raven once pointed out, you couldn’t call a ballet on the stage.) Professional wrestling is as physical as any real sport (I don’t include pub games like darts and snooker here), and yet it’s predetermined nature makes it seem somehow pointless to the average member of the public. “What would you pay to go and see something that’s not real”, say Joe Sixpack, before trotting off to see Avengers: Infinity War. It’s a strange society where it’s easier to suspend disbelief about an intergalactic being trying to gain control of an ‘Infinity Gauntlet’ than it is two wrestlers engaging in a competitive contest. (Then again: see Trump/Brexit).
So one can sympathise with James to an extent in failing to get the TLS reviewer to grasp the nature of the business. Anyone who writes a book on wrestling risks falling between two stools. An appeal to the uninitiated risks the sort of reaction detailed above. On the other, to aim exclusively at the marks entails the issue that your reader’s will most likely be fairly knowledgeable about the subject matter. I asked a historian friend of mine last year (or was it the year before – no matter) if he wanted to go and see the film about Churchill, and he declined on the grounds that “what could it tell him about Chruchill that he didn’t already know”? Something similar might be said here.
All this however, makes one question the wisdom of embarking on the project in the first place. There are few things worse than the amateur historian. Smallman is not alone here; Jim Cornette likes to fashion himself as a wrestling historian, as witnessed by his Back to the Territories DVD series. Yet knowing a lot about something doesn’t make you qualified to write about it. Historiography is ultimately about understanding: and knowledge is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of understanding.
The task of the historian – particularly those who write about periods far removed from our own – is to get into the heads of and convey to the reader the thoughts of people whose outlook was very different from our own. For instance, what were the issues at stake in the English Civil War that made families turn against each other as some sided with Parliament and others with the Crown? The successful historian will be able to convey to their readers why this should be the case. Historical writing is about weighing the facts; providing analyses and explanation: not simply recounting how you used to stay up until the early hours watching WWF PPV’s on SKY.
Moreover, the notion that one can capture the entire history of professional wrestling in 400-odd pages is, to be frank, sheer hubris. What Smallman perhaps should have done was to aim to pen something like a wrestling equivalent of Fever Pitch. For the uninitiated, the latter is a book that was published in the early 90’s: a first person account of a football obsessive that to a qualified extent helped to legitimise football – or at least being a football fan anyway. Instead, he wrote I’m Sorry, I Love You. Still, the book seems to have gone down well with the Progress faithful: and maybe that was the point all along.