And a very happy birthday to rugby’s best-selling author, Michael Green, who turned 90 on January 2.
It is possible that the cumulative sales of vastly prolific writers like Terry McLean and JBG Thomas may match Green, but none has come near the 250,000 copies, and counting, of Green’s The Art of Coarse Rugby sold since it was first published in 1960. Since his initial advance was a mere £75, ungenerous even in 1960, it seems a fair bet that the royalties have kept him in some style since.
It has, inevitably, dated a little. As early as 1967, writing an introduction to the 13th reprint, Green admitted — “references to teams playing under primitive conditions may seem a little dated now” — that a fair amount had changed.
Fifty years on from that Green’s world of Extra Cs, old boys teams and works clubs playing on windswept, swamplike council recreation grounds on to which they had to carry the posts before starting has diminished further. But his 1967 suggestion that “if any parts of it seem out of date, let it be considered as a historical record” holds, and the book in any case speaks to something more lastingly irreverent in the game’s spirit.
It began, ironically for a humorous work, in a fit of temper. Having grown up in the Midlands, he was outraged by an Observer sub-editor’s snooty dismissal of works team rugby, and carried his anger into a pub diatribe — directed at then Sports Editor Chris Brasher — about the paper’s coverage: “It’s all Harlequins and Twickers and Old Whitgiftians and this dear old game of ours, and all that rubbish…Why don’t you give some space to the real rugby, the sort played by ordinary blokes like me”.
“It had the ironic consequence of creating such demand for his services that he pretty much gave up playing rugby.”
Richards on Green
Brasher, to his credit, responded to this upbraiding by asking Green to turn his thoughts into an article on the game’s hidden depths for the following week’s paper. Green, drawing on experience playing with teams like Old Wyggestonians, Leicester Thursday and Ealing B — only the week before a team-mate, rebuked by the referee, had asked “what new laws ?” — produced a piece which was headlined ‘Extraordinary Extra B’ and evoked what he remembered as “a sensation, which appeared out of all proportion to its importance”.
The sensation was noted by an editor at publishers Hutchinson – which had previously published Spike Hughes’s ‘Art of Coarse Cricket’. They commissioned Green to write a rugby version, sub-titled Any Number Can Play in recognition of the rarity with which coarse teams were actually composed of 15 men: “Most Extra Bs and Cs would not know what to do with fifteen players. They would need to send three or four off the field before they started”.
It came out in November 1960. The first print of 3,000 was sold out before it was published, the reprint moved just as fast and a third run was commissioned just before Christmas. Its success meant that Green never did get to write the great novel to which he, like many young journalists, aspired. It had the ironic consequence of creating such demand for his services that he pretty much gave up playing rugby.
Among those demands was an upturn in his career as a rugby writer — as ‘Scout’ on the Northampton Chronicle and Echo he reckoned he had won his spurs with Don White by affecting not to notice when the England flanker White dragged him fully clothed into the club showers during an interview — which made him a fixture in national Sunday papers for many years, not least as a fine writer of round-ups, one of those jobs everybody reckons is easy until they actually try to do it.
Green’s explanation for its success was that he had unknowingly tapped into the beginning of the satire boom of the sixties. There is also an echo of Stephen Potter’s One-Upmanship in a declaration, flying in the face of rugby’s accepted pieties that ‘the object of the game of Coarse Rugby is to win’ and the outlining of stratagems — such as his wearing an old Northampton jersey to fool opponents info focussing attention on him, creating time and space for team-mates to prosper until the opposition realised that he was not very good at all – for doing so.
“Given that the Hall already accommodates fiction, in the form of William Webb Ellis, it is surely time that is acknowledged humour by bringing in the man who has made more people laugh about rugby than anyone else.”
Richards feels it is time World Rugby recgonised Michael Green’s importance to the sport
His advocacy of allowing points for punted goals echoes – presumably unconsciously, although like most good humourists Green has a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of his subject than he lets on — a proposal in the first ever New Zealand coaching manual, by Tom Ellison.
There is also a joyously affectionate chapter about Wales, starting with his recollection that “My first contact with the Welsh was as a small child, sitting with my parents in the members stand at Welford Road, Leicester. I recall my father going purple in the face and I asked ‘Mummy, why is Daddy waving his fist at that man in the white shirt. Mother gently replied ‘Because he’s a Swansea player, dear’. Since then I have discovered more about Welsh rugby. I am also able to appreciate why father was waving his fist.”
Green admits to having had misgivings about the ‘Coarse’ element in the title, fearing that it implied crudity. But he was clearly reconciled to it, going on to produce Even Coarser Rugby (1963) and Rugby Alphabet(1971) and several other ‘Coarse’ volumes of which perhaps the best deal with Acting — another lifelong passion — and Golf, where like Wodehouse and others he found copious material in the game’s po-faced self-regard. There were several other humorous works and two terrific volumes of autobiography, of which the second Nobody Hurt in Small Earthquake (1990) is a journalistic memoir to stand with those of contemporaries like David Foot and Keith Waterhouse.
There were intended to be more, but he fell victim to changing fashions and increased risk-aversion among publishing. On the one occasion we met, at the launch in 1998 of the Rugby Compendium, in which were both involved, I said I was looking forward to volume three of the memoirs, only to be told that there was no interest from publishers. Around the same time there was an almost heroically witless magazine review of a reissue of Coarse Rugby reckoning that it was ‘probably funny if you went to public school’. Subjective as humour is, this missed the point that Coarse Rugby was and is a game played by those who had not been to public school.
Nor can it have been entirely pleasing for a living author to figure as no 53 in Christopher Fowler’s Forgotten Writers series in the Independent, even if Fowler — an accomplished humourist himself — reckoned Squire Haggard’s Journals (1975) a ‘classic’ in which Green’s debauched eighteenth century diarist was revealed as ‘the origin of the Little Englander in all of his sclerotic, xenophobic horror’.
But he’s still with us, and The Art of Coarse Rugby is still, 57 years on, in print. The Rugby Paper’s Brendan Gallagher found him in 2014 still in vigorous form in spite of two bouts with cancer, and advanced the thought that it was about time World Rugby put him into its Hall of Fame.
Given that the Hall already accommodates fiction, in the form of William Webb Ellis, it is surely time that is acknowledged humour — an essential element in any healthy sport — by bringing in the man who has made more people laugh about rugby than anyone else.
But whether or not that happens, here’s to him on his 90th — and may there be many more.