Like most readers, I have favourite books; by that I mean ones I re-read or at least dip into frequently. Three of mine are: The Bare Knuckle Breed by Louis Golding, The Sweet Science by AJ Liebling and Sober Truth: A Collection of Nineteenth Century Episodes, Fantastic, Grotesque and Mysterious, compiled and edited by Margaret Barton and Osbert Sitwell.
The Golding book was given to me at Christmas by my sister when I was thirteen, so it is a measure of the value I place on it that I’ve kept it, through innumerable house moves, for 57 years.
Dealing with events and characters in the bare-knuckle era of prize fighting, roughly from the early 18th to the late 19th centuries, Golding blends fact and fiction in a highly entertaining way. The descriptions of the fights, solidly based on contemporary sources, are dramatic, and episodes like the imagined conversation between the Prince Regent and Beau Brummel are amusing
A strong theme is racial prejudice against Jews like Daniel Mendoza (incidentally an ancestor of Peter Sellers), Gypsies and Afro-Americans. Former slave Tom Molyneaux was cheated of the championship when the champion Tom Rib fought with lead weights in his fists, and the ‘Black Prince’, Peter Jackson, would certainly have won the world heavyweight championship had John L Sullivan not drawn the colour line against him.
The book lost its dust jacket decades ago and is stained and yellowed but I treasure it.
AJ Liebling was a journalist, war correspondent and author who wrote for the New Yorker and was associated with the Algonquin round table group, though not a member. The Sweet Science is a collection of his magazine articles on boxing. Liebling’s style is based on that of Pierce Egan, the 19th-century chronicler of the prize ring, and essayists of the period, like Addison.
The writing has an elevated literary tone, which analyses boxing and boxers without ever being patronising. ‘Ahab and Nemesis’, about Archie Moore’s tilt at the world heavyweight championship held by Rocky Marciano, is a typical title. On a single page Liebling mentions Egan, Melville, Albert Camus and the myth of Sisyphus.
None of this high-faluting stuff gets in the way of graphic descriptions of fights and their audiences and social change – the effect of television on boxing clubs in the Big Apple. Liebling is adept at Runyonesque dialogue when required. When reporters asked his manager if Cleveland Williams, a heavyweight contender clearly mentally challenged, could read and write, the manager replied, “He can, but not good.’
Sober Truth includes chapters like ‘Shelley’s Death and the Burning of his Body’, ‘The Fejee Mermaid’, ‘Burke and Hare’, ‘Lola Montez’, ‘The Mary Celeste’, ‘The Tichborne Case’, ‘The Home Life of Brigham Young’, ‘Jack the Ripper’, ‘The Man with Triangular Teeth’, ‘The Adventures of Louis de Rougement’ and many others fully answering to the book’s subtitle.
I often take Sober Truth down and read a chapter to remind myself that, although a lot of what I write might be considered unlikely, truth is indeed stranger than fiction.