Curling up in bed on a rainy night with only a copy of the latest issue of Time is a pleasure that can never be matched
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war.
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos 'd...
— Shakespeare, King Richard II
For me, that clinched it. Not those four immortal lines written by a man who is a kind of synonym for a literature (English) itself, but the story that ran under them.
It was February 1978, I was barely eight months into a two-year post graduate journalism course at Madras University, my incomparable sports hero had just lost his title to a broken-toothed No-name, and Time magazine featured Muhammad Ali on the cover with the legend, ‘The Greatest’ is Gone.
By then, I was already a long-time incurable Time addict for whom it was not so much a magazine as a weekly tutorial in journalism. But that particular cover story, and an essay on sporting mortality featured in the same issue, together helped decide what I wanted to be in life — a sports writer.
Looking back after all these years, it might appear strange that arguably the world’s greatest English language news weekly — rather than a sports magazine — should have intervened to bring some order to my brain, whose neuronal activity was rather chaotic when it came to career choice.
Tutored by Time throughout my teens and into my early 20s, I learnt many things valued in my profession from the mother of all magazines, which started publication in March 1923.
Ninety years on, as Time Warner Inc. made the announcement recently that it would spin off Time from the parent company, I felt as if my great teacher had been orphaned. Would Time’s print edition go the way of Newsweek, which recently ceased publication in print form?
“In the last few rounds, those watching felt a growing and almost unreasonable pathos. It was an emotional force considerably larger than the spectacle — a heavyweight champion losing his title — might be expected to generate. The moment carried an accumulation of memories and meanings that are involved in the drama of great athletes aging and failing.”
That was the opening paragraph of an essay titled ‘To an athlete getting old,’ written by Lance Morrow in that 1978 issue of Time. That minor masterpiece still happens to be one of the greatest pieces of sports journalism I have had the good fortune to set eyes on.
Once the career choice was made, it was hard to explain to others who had zeroed in on the same profession why one chose American boxing writers as heroes.
But then, sports-writing is like coffee and single-malt whiskey — if you fell in love with a particular flavour, you often stayed with it for life. So it was for me with Time’s sports coverage — particularly its boxing coverage.
Even as friends pored over every page of Cardus in the Covers, Quietly fades the Don (Jack Fingleton’s unforgettable tribute to Bradman) or that timeless classic of cricket literature, C.L.R. James’s Beyond a Boundary, this columnist’s modest collection contained mostly the works of American sports writers. At the top of the heap was Norman Mailer’s The Fight. A book on the famous Ali versus George Foreman title fight in 1974, it was rather slender, but was packed with literary splendour.
“Cut out the mayonnaise,” Harry Rosenfeld, my Editor at Times Union in Albany, upstate New York — where I worked in 1984 — used to tell me after quickly running through my copy.
A good many American sports writers knew how to do that. They believed in the robust use of active verbs, not in the egregious employment of adjectives. They didn’t do romanticism; instead, they did reality. And they did it with lean, mean and athletic prose that was irresistible.
The best of sport is ineffable; it cannot be quantified. This is why it takes a good writer to bring sport alive on print. And that isn’t a simple business. As Red Smith, one of the greatest American sports columnists said: “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
At Time, the sports writers bled all the time to produce elegant, unforgettable prose, no matter the occasion — the coming of age of Cassius Clay (as Ali was known when he was first featured on the magazine’s cover in 1963), Michael Jordan’s sensational comeback, or the stunning arrival of Tiger Woods.
Surely, time will not come to an end if and when Time fails to make it into print. But curling up in bed on a rainy night in a dimly lit bedroom without television, telephone, cell phone, iPod or iPad, with only a copy of the latest issue of Time to see you through to shut-eye time, is a pleasure that can never be matched.