Alcoholics make great sports writers!
THE JONATHAN QUAYLE HIGGINS COLUMN
I was intrigued to read IRC columnist Kangaroo Jack’s description of himself in The Bondi Bum recently. He wrote: “When I waltz out the house to get my daily Oporto burger and chips on the Bondi beachfront, I look like a hobo with my wild white hair, shaggy beard, torn shirt, filthy tracksuit pants and clacking beach thongs.”
I visited Jack at his Sydney shack a week before I attended the Melbourne Cup in 2005 and I can tell you what he describes above is not true. I’ve seen a recent photo too. He doesn’t have a shaggy beard!
In his column yesterday, Jack must’ve recalled our week together in Sydney. He spoke about a betting spree and winnings and all sorts of good things and then said we regarded losing punters as ‘klutzes’. Also, false. I was a witness to Jack teaching some fellow-hoboes the ropes in a Maroubra Bay betting outlet, paying for most of their bets and cleaning the little shop out of its cash float in less than two hours!
So yes, the man has a noble heart, he’s a great writer and all that prevents him from getting worldwide recognition and a Wikipedia page is the fact that he is not an almost permanently pissed alcoholic.
See, I stumbled across some old newspaper tributes to legendary sports- and racing writers and have come to the conclusion that, to achieve immortality as a sports hack, one has to be an outright ‘alcie’. Or a junkie, for that matter. Journalism must be the only field of industry in which alcoholics and junkies get rewarded!
Sports reporting and alcohol go together, much like award-winning fiction goes with drugs and alcohol. Faulkner, O’Neill, Hemingway and Steinbeck loved a pot with their breakfast, and renowned drug experimenter Hunter S. Thompson never had a sober moment from the age of 21 until his self-inflicted death by gunshot at age 67. Stephen King, the great horror writer, has admitted that he was so high on cocaine in parts of his career he can’t remember one word of certain best-selling novels that flowed from his pen!
My conclusion drawn from this is not that alcoholic writers are (or were) more likable, cuddly and funny (while they were alive or telling tales in a pub) and hence received recognition from fellow-alcoholic academic critics. No, on the contrary, I firmly believe that supremely talented hacks go to a different level when they are pissed – they reach even higher peaks with substances flowing through their veins. And this is why I will be investing in a case of Glenlivet 12-yo Speyside as soon as I finish this column. Every man deserves a shot at greatness, and many get there in a haze of alcoholic vapour.
Jeffrey Bernard, who wrote the column ‘Low Life’ for the Spectator, was notorious for a feckless and chaotic career and life of alcohol abuse. He was famous for quotes like, ‘One way to stop a runaway horse is to bet on him!’ and ‘I have been commissioned to write an autobiography and I would be grateful to any of your readers who could tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974’.
Bernard drank vodka, ice and soda, and told the barman in the Coach and Horseman not to ‘drown it’ in soda. The Coach & Horses was his rehearsal room. In that decade, it was one of a clutch of Soho conversation pubs where painters and poets gathered, with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud among them.
Bernard spent most of the hours between periods of unconsciousness in conversation. He was good at it, and it served as a rehearsal for his columns, typed in the unreal, early hours of press day with seldom a correction.
Bernard was also racing correspondent for satirical magazine Private Eye, and became a columnist for Sporting Life in October 1970. In 1971, Bernard was at Royal Ascot when he accidentally vomited on the Queen Mother’s shoes. The Sporting Life forgave this, but his collapsing on to a table and falling asleep the moment he was meant to make a speech at a national point-to-point dinner was going too far, and he was fired.
Keith Waterhouse made Jeffrey famous with his play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (1989), to which Peter O’Toole took with sympathetic gusto. But Waterhouse simply presented on stage some of Jeffrey’s Low Life columns almost word for word, and audiences loved it.
Bernard died at his home in Soho at age 65 in 1997 of renal failure after turning down treatment by dialysis.
Con Houlihan, who started writing sports at 46 years of age, took Irish sports writing to another level. A lover of the strange mix of brandy and milk, he described his employment at The Evening Press as his ‘happiest hours’ and said: “I loved that paper. Usually I worked the column out in my head during the night – occasionally in some congenial pub – and got up about four in the morning and wrote it.” His favourite pub was Mulligans in Dublin.
As one of his sports editors noted, Houlihan wrote for the man in the street, “brought people to the sports pages who normally never bothered with sport” and “due to his writing he improved immensely the overall standard of sports journalism in Ireland.”
Houlihan never used a typewriter or a notebook. He wrote in huge letters on a sheet of paper – sometimes he would only fit a single sentence on the page. In 2010, he was given an All Ireland Inspirational Life award for his “unique and vocal insight into all aspects of Irish society”.
A bronze bust of Houlihan was unveiled in his hometown of Castleisland in 2004. In 2011, a bronze plaque was installed outside The Palace bar in Dublin. The sculpture is in the foyer of The Bank pub on College Green. Cons Corner and a Bronze Bust with a quote are in The Palace Bar.
Houlihan, despite his drinking habit, lived till 86 years of age.
Not so lucky in terms of years on earth was Pete Axthelm, sportswriter and columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and its Inside Sports. During the 1980s, his knowledge of sports and journalistic skill aided him in becoming a sports commentator for The NFL on NBC and NFL Primetime and horse racing on ESPN.
Axthelm developed his love of drinking at Yale University. When he wasn’t at the Daily News building, odds were good that he was at a dive near campus called Rudy’s. Perhaps his closest friend at the time, Charles Dillingham (who later became a theatre director in L.A.), recalls the night he and Axthelm stared longingly at the bottles arrayed behind Rudy’s bar. How long would it take to drain the entire inventory? they wondered. “Hm,” Ax said pensively. “How are you for February?”
Upon graduation, Pete went to work covering horse racing for the New York Herald-Tribune, and then spent 20 years writing for Newsweek. He wrote about sports at least as well as any member of his generation; his book about basketball, “The City Game,” is a classic. And he could write adeptly about such diverse topics as country music or runaway kids. Yet nobody ever heard Pete pontificate, publicly or privately, about the craft of journalism; he seemed to take his enormous skills for granted.
Pete loved the whole subculture of gamblers, bookies, hustlers, loansharks, touts, crooks and assorted wiseguys. He might moralize in print about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or about the propriety of playing the Super Bowl in the midst of the war with Iraq, but he’d never condemn a con man or a hustler.
He boasted for years how he “beaded” and bet the two horses who produced a $7,000 exacta payoff that remains the largest in Gulfstream Park’s history. Every gambler’s fate, he would say, lies in the fickle hands of the Goddess of Wagering, and he once wrote: “The Goddess must be appeased, soothed, tithed. She must never be affronted by statements hinting that a gambler has taken fate into his own firm grip.”
Decades before any athlete took a knee, he saw the potential for players to use their platforms for social activism—and sometimes he openly encouraged them to do so. Before DraftKings and FanDuel and betting apps, he envisioned an increasingly busy intersection between sports and wagering, often wondering why leagues weren’t more hospitable to fans who put money on outcomes.
Axthelm was also quick to see that the skills of successful journalists are transferable; they don’t have to pick a platform or a medium. And as long as you’re slinging words for a living, television is preferable to print. They pay you more and work you less!
And—this is really saying something—he could drink more heroically than anyone. Which is why Pete Axthelm didn’t make it to age 48. He preferred to drink standing up—clutching his Canadian Club, neat, and touting the next day’s races at Yonkers.
Axthelm didn’t merely explore the sports betting subculture; he inhabited it. A not insignificant chunk of his income went toward wagering. Yes, it was the gambler’s rush, the surges in fortune, the oscillating moods. Beyond that, though, he saw something almost metaphysical in gambling. He often shared his creed with others: “You gotta make at least one bet every day, or else you don’t know if you’re walking around lucky.”
More than one of Axthelm’s friends would speculate on another reason he took to TV: It was more conducive to the drinking that was starting to figure more prominently in his life. “Writing is hard,” William Nack, the longtime SI writer, once told a friend. “TV, for him, wasn’t.”
Without looming deadlines, Axthelm was free to get loaded as soon as a show ended. Owing largely to his drinking, he aged conspicuously. Viewers were, without fail, shocked to learn he was two decades younger than they’d assumed. Megan noticed the decline, too: “He was never falling-down drunk or face-planting in the birthday cake, but more and more, he would be slurring his words.”
By 1988, the drinking that had always been part of Ax’s charm and personality was taking over. A string of friends told him that he was killing himself. His response: ‘If you took away my drinking, I wouldn’t be living. So I lose either way’. He was gaunt and looked tired. His clothes no longer fitted his withering body. Friends would ring one another while he was on TV and commiserate about his appearance, speculating about how much he’d been drinking.
When Yale’s class of 1965 met for its 25th reunion, Axthelm was absent, just as he’d been for graduation. This time, though, he wasn’t at his beloved racetrack. He was in a Pittsburgh hospital, awaiting a liver transplant. It never came. He died on Feb. 2, 1991, at age 47, his luck having officially run out. -IRC.
Jeffrey Bernard, Con Houlihan, Pete Axthelm
The Irish Field