“How do you find hope in a world without hope?”
A big question asked by a very young woman at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last night where in a stunning display of sisterhood and solidarity, Laurie Pennie shared her stage with me, for no reason other than to stand up for equality.
A bit of background:
It is exactly two years ago now that I asked former top jockey Declan Murphy if I could write his incredible story of grit and survival. Having turned down three previous book offers and a potential movie deal – too painful, too private – he unsurprisingly turned me down too. But then, just days later, he sought me out, if only to ask why (on earth) would a woman with neither knowledge nor experience of horse racing be interested in writing his story.
On an impulse (and because I am much braver when I’m writing than speaking), I said I would answer the question in writing, and I did. ‘If my words,’ I wrote, ‘can get your story out into the world, I want to do this. Your story can make a difference. It can bring hope, touch lives. I want US to try and do this.”
His reply: ‘I don’t know if I have a story, but you have a talent. If my story can help showcase your writing, let’s do it.’
We did it.
For twelve incredible months, I delved into strange and unknown worlds of weighing rooms and ICU’s and winning posts and memory loss, and the colossal, complex, exhausting, occasionally infuriating but mostly incredible minds of successful sportspeople – and emerged, at the end of it, with Centaur.
But from there, it all fell apart, spiralling out of control in a confusingly rapid, downward trajectory.
Without any meaningful explanation, I found myself shut out of the process, excluded almost entirely from the publicity and the PR surrounding the book. Instead Declan was sent forth “for the good of the book,” to do countless print and radio interviews where he spent large chunks of airtime expressing his disappointment that his partner in this collaboration was strikingly absent from it all.
Centaur’s genesis is hugely central to the context of this discussion. As opposed to most ghost-written books, in this case, the publisher did not go looking for a ghost writer to tell a jockey’s story, having already signed him up. The industry wasn’t even aware of the story, nor for that matter was the jockey. The idea stemmed from my (admittedly) crazy imagination, it was then successfully sold to Declan, then to an agent, who then sold it to the publisher. Given that this was largely my creative project, missing me out seemed rather odd.
A Sunday Times Bestseller listing and an unexpected (and utterly incredible) William Hill Sports Book of The Year longlist later, Declan and I are still left guessing where things went wrong. Perhaps it was just easier this way – after all, many books sell by putting the celebrity in front of the camera. Or perhaps it wasn’t only just easier, but also safer, perhaps someone truly believed that the book reading public was simply not ready to cope with anything that was just that little bit different. Whatever the reason, the unfortunate result was, that from mainstream media to a couple of prestigious literary festivals, I was cut out of my own book – literally speaking – given that on one occasion, my name was actually cropped off the jacket in publicity material and attributed to “a design issue.”
That said, there are always those who are responsible for moving the Overton Window in the right direction. First and foremost, Declan Murphy, a great friend and my biggest ally, who has never been anything less than exceedingly gracious and generous in his praise for my work. If not for being unwell, he would have been there last night, cheering on the girls, in his usual exuberant fashion. There are others who need direct mention for seeing the book and my contribution for what it is – the organisers and audiences at the Scarborough, Wigtown and Appledore festivals, as well as the wide spectrum of indie bookstores who hosted us warmly over the past months, Tim Hayward, Sarah Hughes, Caroline Sanderson, Graham Sharpe, Sinead Farrell, Matt Williams, Jim Lawless, Nihal Arthanayake, Sarah Brett, and – just today and very flatteringly – Paul Kimmage, whose Engage lay open on my writing desk for fifteen months as I was writing Centaur, with a very bad result – it was near impossible not to feel the pressure of his style or to resist copying his every word. (So chuffed!)
And perhaps these are the people who kept me sane. But sanity too, has its end point.
What ultimately caused the cookie to crumble were some faith shattering conversations late last week when I was warned that vocalising my frustrations would result in my being perceived as a “difficult woman” and risk the future of my writing career. I am in the business of finding beautiful words, but no amount of trying, found any kind of beauty in those words. No, that was pure ugliness – the age old tactic of silencing women – and it was time for that silence to break.
In desperation (really a feeling that no one who has earned their due should ever feel) I went out into the world, thinking, that surely there’s got to be someone who will see this for what it is. There was. I found Laurie Pennie, a strong, confident, courageous woman with sass and wit and words and conviction, whose practice I’d followed for some time now. What I didn’t know was that she had a book out – Bitch Doctrine, Essays for Dissenting Adults. It was the tagline, not so much as the title that caught my attention. Hmm…I thought. Maybe…
And so, there I was, a week later, sharing the stage with the one person who lives by the doctrine she preaches and – finally – wasn’t afraid to take a stand. A stranger with no skin in the game who decided to put herself on the line, and help me for no reason other than for solidarity’s sake. She gave up her own platform, in order to give me one. I don’t know about you, but this is faith affirming stuff.
Laurie and I had fun on stage – open, honest, intelligent fun. No anger, no lament and no bitterness because bitterness is not part of the narrative. Frankly, the great shame lies not so much for me, as for our book. This is not a ghost-written book. This is creative non-fiction. This is a story about a highly inspirational man written by a highly feminine woman, a dancer, who lives by rhythm. I care about these things, about the balance of words, their tone and their texture, and their weight. And so, my intention with Centaur was art and poetry; a piece of literature that would affect its reader both sensually and intellectually. Missing the writer out with that in mind – at a literary festival – is missing the point. Cropping my name out is like deleting the hours and days and weeks and months, spent in small enclosed rooms writing and re-writing the same nine words just to open with that perfect first line.
There is a void today in sports writing and that void is noticeably female. The whys and why nots of that are outside the purview of this particular post (please tweet me), but suffice it to say that I feel very strongly that it’s time to bring “the feminine” into sports writing and other writing of male preserve. This has strong and glorious precedent, in war writing, for example, where in the early 20th century, women like Martha Gellhorn changed the essence of how conflict was reported. While men reported from the front, these women went into hospitals and took to the streets to report on how war impacted civilian lives — a different take, a fresh take, a female take; something that I believe mainstream sports writing is ready for.
But as with any transformational movement, this one too needs its champions. We need people in positions of privilege, people with pens and voices, the media, prestigious literary festivals with patrons who are in a position to influence things and change lives to sit up and take note, to understand when women are adding something. We need to inspire women writers who think that these genres are not for us, to believe that these genres are also, for us. To move forward, we have to believe that even the stereotypically macho world of male sports writing can welcome us in and we can meaningfully contribute.
WE need to. Because I cannot do it alone.
What I did last night was the scariest, most uncomfortable thing I have done in my professional career and many times, while I was sitting there quietly in the audience, waiting for Laurie to introduce me, I couldn’t help but ask myself why I was doing this instead of finding the nearest exit and making a mad dash to safety. And the answer was right there, staring me in the face. I was doing this because it was scary. Because anything that’s intended to challenge the status quo is rarely not scary. It’s almost never without risk. What extraordinary act of courage it took for Laurie to risk her reputation to save mine, I will never understand, but this is the kind of goodness that gives us space to continue.
Apart from a few angry emails from the usual suspects (which I ignored) (I don’t, as a matter of course respond to angry emails), the outpouring of support on social media has been overwhelming. Thank you to all of you for your support because support is as brave as action, just as silence is as damaging as perpetrating. If you have any more angry emails to send, please direct them to me and not to Laurie; she took one for me, and I would take many, for her.
I owe gratitude to many people for allowing last night to happen at all – the audience at Cheltenham who paid good ticket money to hear Laurie, but received me with equal openness and warmth; Sarah Shaffi, the event chair, who maintained remarkable grace and composure even as the drama she knew nothing about, unfolded before her eyes; the young man at the bookstore who, with quiet efficiency, arranged to have Centaur copies for me to sign; the ladies who came running down the street after me to tell me how much they appreciated my story; to the festival for being so gracious to Laurie afterwards, but most of all to the wonderful woman I now have the privilege of calling a friend: Thank you to @PennyRed for your bravery, spirit, and extreme generosity.
I think I now know how to attempt to answer the big question asked by the young woman last night. For hidden right here, between the lines, even in the middle of this messy, sad, funny, unfortunate, but ultimately uplifting story, it’s there. Just like it’s there even in the middle of this messy, sad, funny, unfortunate, but ultimately uplifting world we live in. It’s always there. Sometimes, you just need to look a little harder to find it.