Fighting Men

D.A.N. Jones

  • Ring of Truth by Vernon Scannell
    Robson, 342 pp, £8.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 86051 244 4
  • The Tiger and the Rose: An Autobiography by Vernon Scannell
    Robson, 197 pp, £8.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 86051 221 5
  • Man of War by John Masters
    Joseph, 314 pp, £8.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 7181 2360 3
  • The Notebook of Gismondo Cavalletti by R.M. Lamming
    Cape, 248 pp, £7.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 224 02141 9
  • The Rape of Shavi by Buchi Emecheta
    Ogwugwu Afor, 178 pp, £7.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 9508177 1 6
  • Thomas Lyster: A Cambridge Novel by David Wurtzel
    Brilliance, 215 pp, £7.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 946189 30 7
  • Don’t Swing a Cat by Eva Bolgar
    Bachman and Turner, 143 pp, £7.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 85974 098 6

Vernon Scannell is not the first British poet to have been keen on boxing and, apparently, quite good at it: we may think of Lord Byron and Robert Graves. But few others, surely, have written and worried so concernedly about the ethics of this sport, its moral justification. Ring of Truth, his first novel since The Big Time in 1965, returns hungrily to Scannell’s old problem. Can deliberate wounding be good sport? Scannell tells of dangerous, exciting weeks in the life of Dave Ruddock, a boxer from Leeds, acknowledged as Middleweight Champion of the World. ‘He had not lost a fight since he was 13 ... Schoolboy Champion of Great Britain, Junior ABA and Senior ABA Champion, a Lonsdale Belt, the European title and then the pot of gold, the Championship of the World – 11 years without dropping a decision.’ Dave Ruddock is feeling pretty good. We read on the dust-cover that Scannell himself has been a National Schoolboy and Senior Amateur Boxing Champion: he has also done a little professional boxing (under the name of ‘Johnny Bain’) and travelled with a fairground boxing-booth. While writing about Dave Ruddock, he must have been thinking: ‘I too could have been a contender!’

There are other challenges in Ring of Truth. David Ruddock’s wife, a pious Roman Catholic, feels challenged by the Pope’s visit to Britain and wonders if she ought to become a Bride of Christ. Dave’s young brother, a professional soldier, is called to fight in the Falklands, meeting the reluctant challenge presented by the conscripts of the Argentine junta. The father of the Ruddock brothers, once a physical-training instructor in the British Army, is pretty well pleased with his sons’ combative energies and skills: but even he has his pleasant confidence challenged by the reality of his sons’ risks and wounds. The Ruddocks’ mother feels that men’s fights are none of her business: she is challenged rather by the split between Dave and his wife, when Dave finds a more loving and lovable girl. Mrs Ruddock senior hears about Dave’s amour from her daughter-in-law.

‘The car mileage was just proof,’ says Mrs Ruddock junior. ‘I could tell a month ago he’d got a fancy woman, the way he acted. He didn’t come near me unless he had to. He hasn’t – you know – bothered me for four or five weeks.’

Bothered you?’ The mother-in-law snaps on the tell-tale idiom. ‘By! You sound like a Victorian lass ... Being bothered. I mean – look, you can talk to me straight, love – d’you mean you don’t like it?’

The younger woman blushes and looks into the fire. ‘I like a cuddle and a kiss,’ she admits. ‘But it’s when they get – you know – nasty. Crude. You know.’ Mrs Ruddock senior releases a deep sigh. She has a duty to look after this unsuitable daughter-in-law; but she must also prepare herself to accept and acknowledge Dave’s new ‘fancy woman’.

As Vernon Scannell grows older he becomes more expert or plausible in his attempts to understand women’s ideas and imagine their conversations when no men are present. Is he a ‘sexist’? He is certainly not the kind of man who finds women boring. But he did once complain in a poem about poetry readings: ‘There are always more women than men.’ (Does he complain that there are always more men than women at boxing-matches?) The well-timed reissue of his autobiography of 1970, The Tiger and the Rose, gives us some excuse to consider his life and character – helpful toward the appreciation of his writing (as with Byron and Graves, again).

None of the women in Ring of Truth can appreciate boxing: Scannell sets up women characters to argue against the sport. Dave Ruddock’s mate, Tom, persuades him to appear on Radio Leeds, to be interviewed by Tom’s girlfriend. She says reproachful things: ‘You know quite well that the kind of blow you’ve been trained to deliver could kill a man.’ Dave ponderously replies:

Women don’t understand boxing ... You’ll hear a boxer say something like ‘I knew I had hurt him so I went in for kill.’ Now, he doesn’t mean it, not like you mean ‘hurt’ or ‘kill’. You never feel vicious ... You’ve got to have a bit of danger, a bit of pain, or there wouldn’t be no point, would there?

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