Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Wrestliana by Toby Litt. Galley Beggar Press. £9.99
Sitting on a bench in Currock House in Carlisle. A large mat on the floor. Each person ranked in order of size. Waiting their turn. In the middle is Toby Litt, novelist, once, in 2003, one of Granta’s twenty best young British novelists. Now he sits in trepidation, waiting to be thrown.
It is the final meeting of the year of the Carlisle Club of the Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling Association and Toby Litt is about to physically “tek hod” for the very first time.
He has been “tekking hod” of sorts for the last few years. He’s been attempting to “tek hod” of his great-great-great grandfather, William Litt. He was a man who really did know how to “tek hod”. He’d won over two hundred prize belts throughout the Lake Counties in the days when wrestling was a sport valued above boxing and football. When one victory could be rewarded with enough money to buy a farm. He’d been a strong, wiry man, a man six feet tall, a man deeply respected for his physical prowess.
And Toby Litt – he was a writer, a public school educated southerner, the object of vicious school bullying. He’d wielded his pen to some success, but he was leading an ordinary life, teaching creative writing, persistently writing, and standing on the touchline with the other dads watching his two lads, Henry and George, as they played football.
It’s almost as though he hadn’t got a grip on his life.
But William Litt had. For Toby’s father, a physical giant of an antique dealer, William Litt was his great story - “It has everything – a strong, tragic lead man. It involves crime, disloyalty, poetry and love. It’s a mystery story. It even has some epic fight scenes in it.” And it was William Litt’s story that Toby set out to write for his ageing, widowed father in the years after he had lost his ebullience.
After his years in the wrestling ring, as fighter, champion and referee, William had written Wrestliana, or an Historic Account of Ancient and Modern Wrestling. It had been published in Whitehaven in 1823 and was for sale throughout all Northern Counties. It has become the gospel of Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling. William Litt is the epitome of that most masculine, most manly of sports with its perspiring muscles and deep male intimacy.
And William Litt’s life itself. Born the son of a farmer, on Bowthorn Farm, on the hard lands above Arlecdon, he became a smuggler, an agent for the Lowthers, a failed brewer and a publican in Hensingham and a writer. There was a novel, Henry and Mary, a tragic love story, competent and copied from Scott, but perhaps hinting at things in his own life. There was his poetry, regularly featured in the Whitehaven papers, and there were letters from Canada.
He had, in fact, failed to “tek hold”. After the great match with Harry Graham – William wins eight falls to four - and after losing £3000 in one year in the pub in Hensingham, he’d been forced by circumstances to leave wife and children and go to make a new life for himself in Canada. He’d worked, he’d written and he’d taught but the champion wrestler failed to make a new life for himself and his family. After fifteen years he died largely forgotten.
But Toby Litt’s Wrestliana does “tek hod”. It tells of William’s life in arresting detail. It tells of the search for the story, of Toby’s own life and the line of his family back through generations and it gets to grips with where he is now, a middle-aged writer, word-bound.
But Toby did “tek hod” on that mat in Currock House and, like his great-great-great grandfather, he can write with the authority that comes from physical involvement.