“I decided to write a book about William, and to pay tribute to him by calling it Wrestliana. By doing this, I would explicitly take William on, on his home ground. Because all of this ‘being a man’ stuff was something I needed to wrestle with. To be a better son and to be a better father. To be a better man.” — Toby Litt
The author of over fifteen books, Toby Litt continues to be effortlessly experimental as he moves skilfully between genres, from a thriller set in high-octane Media London (Corpsing), a coming-of-age tale which turns disturbingly murderous (deadkidsongs), and a parody of chick lit in Finding Myself; to a Henry Jamesian portrayal of bereavement casting a blight over life (Ghost Story), facing the male midlife crisis as a Canadian rock band goes on tour in I play the drums in a band called okay, and a superb collection of twenty-six essays on a diverse range of subjects (Mutants). At times he combines a variety of forms in one book.
Wrestliana is many things: a very readable and touching memoir which interweaves personal and family reminiscences; a slice of social history; an exploration of manhood through the generations; an account of wrestling then and now; insights into literary life and teaching creative writing, and an entertaining take on physical vs. literary prowess and machismo.
Toby Litt’s expertly-constructed memoir is like an experimental mosaic, and flies in the face of more conventional, streamlined narratives. I loved this book, and the writing. Toby Litt delights in and plays with language. Wrestliana is a book to be read and reread.
What is masculinity in the modern world?
When manliness was all about protection, provision and procreation as hunters, warriors, labourers, or industrial workers, physical prowess mattered. But in the post-industrial society of today, the gender gap has narrowed and men and women mostly do the same jobs. The Western world is becoming unisex. Violence is ubiquitous and there seems to be a muddled understanding about manhood. The point is to be a good man rather than being manly.
Toby Litt grew up in Ampthill, “a Georgian market town, in a Georgian house surrounded by Georgian furniture (bought and sold by my father, who dealt in antiques) most of what I knew about that period had come from Jane Austen.” His father’s great, great grandfather, William Litt, a champion pro wrestler and a writer, was a family legend.
Toby has two sons and is teaching creative writing when his mother dies, in 2012. His father is bereft – Toby’s parents had been together for forty-six years. Having put off doing anything about William Litt, now is the time to write his story.
Where does all the testosterone go?
“William’s figure emerges not only from a local but also from a global background. The dates of his life were to be 1785–1850. These very neatly bracket the dates of the Industrial Revolution, which Eric Hobsbawm in his great book, The Age of Revolution, puts between 1789 and 1848.” William resolutely turned his back on becoming a farmer.
The champion Cumberland & Westmorland wrestler, “winner of 200 belts,” wrote the first ever history of wrestling, Wrestliana, and also penned a novel, Henry & Mary – “Henry’s physical achievements, his great love Mary, his falling among smugglers and his repentance – all of these come out of William’s own youthful experience.” As a journalist, William Litt contributed to the newspaper The Cumberland Pacquet. And as a poet, his most important poem was “a satire of the recent Lake District tourism boom. The title was The Lakes: A Serio-Comic Poem.”
It turns out the Wordsworths and the Litts “almost certainly went back a generation. It’s likely the two William’s fathers knew one another.” The fathers both worked for the local grandee Lowther family, but the sons did not get on.
William’s fall from grace follows a classic trajectory. Then as now, when a sporting hero messes up he has nowhere to hide from the watchful eye of the public, or rivals. William mismanaged The King’s Arms in Hensingham, and lost all his money on a bad investment in a brewery. His marriage to young Betty was a failure. He was bitched at by critics, and fell foul of the local Lord – and had to emigrate.
But to this day William Litt is a local legend; a cult figure.
As a wrestler and a writer, William was both physical and intellectual. Toby’s father had been “the type to perform incredible feats of strength” and told stories in person as opposed to on the page. For Toby, reading voraciously and writing meant he could avoid anything physical; he just worked at his desk, and was a pacifist. “Being badly bullied at boarding school, and deciding the best I could do was never pass any violence on; going from being sporty (Public Schools Relays and First Fifteen) to being anti-sport; spending most of my life – like so many of us do – sitting looking at words on a computer screen.”
Toby spends months researching his illustrious ancestor in the British Library, moving on from historical research to researching Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling. He is a man possessed, and realises that if he is to “find out what William was on about,” he has to do some wrestling himself. He gets hold of Roger Robson who runs the website of the Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling Association and ends up attending the Academy Shield – the biggest club event of the year – “in Bootle Village Hall among the audience waiting for the wrestling to begin [. . .] I flashed back to boarding school, The Other Boy, force, spit, losing. I remembered losing fights. That feeling of being squashed by someone else’s not quite so squashy flesh. Blood in the cheeks and sometimes in the mouth. I didn’t want that again. But maybe I had to face it.”
A few weeks later he goes to the 02 Arena to watch the biggest event of the year, WWE Smackdown, and its superstar, John Cena, in action.
What is sportsmanship?
Courage, strength, fair play and honour are traditional manly values. The choice of blood sport used to be revelatory of how far a person espoused them. Hare coursing – “the great pastime of Cumberland in the late 1700s” – was disparaged by William Litt for not being “sporting” since it involved a motley crowd, pursuing the dogs, pursuing the hare. Whereas “two cocks, put into the ring, faced only one other of their species, and it was a fair fight between them, he [William] supported it.”
Male identity does not have to come across with bold panache, but can come out in more subtle ways. It often involves performing a quietly essential service to others rooted in humility. Toby’s grandfather was in charge of sanitation for the whole South of England during the D-Day landings on 6th June 1944. “Not a conventionally heroic role, but vital.” He was killed, leaving Toby’s father to fend for his older sister and his mother, before being despatched to Shrewsbury School.
Literary machismo, winning and losing
Toby is amused by prominent authors who excelled at sports – Camus and Kerouac the footballers, Beckett the cricketer – or by writers like Hemingway who excelled in boxing and braggadocio. Baseball fan, John Steinbeck, had a fetish for good quality pencils.
There are parallels between winning and losing in the field, and on the page. William Litt and Toby Litt are not so different after all. “Being chosen as one of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists seemed the literary fictional equivalent to being selected for the England Under-18 Football Squad.”
As a wrestler, or as a writer, learning to deal with winning and losing is essential. “Of the twenty of us, brought together in 2003, some have gone on to carve out successful international careers, scoring lots of big match goals: Sarah Waters, David Mitchell. Others are still there or thereabouts in the Premier League: A.L. Kennedy, David Peace. Others, like me, trog along in the Championship. One or two seem to have given up the game entirely.”
Literary awards are hugely important in today’s publishing world since they generate publicity and sales, and have become a form of promotion-savvy showbiz. Fame, is fame, is fame, as Gertrude Stein might have said (though roses were her thing), and it is bad for writers, according to Toby. His take on prizes is refreshing and honest, “Most writers are likely to feel oppressed by gaining rather than losing a prize, because it will be for something accomplished by an earlier version of themselves. Prizes are given to writers for who they once were.”
What is a cult writer? “One whose books had – at some stage – all gone out of print, been ignored.” Toby asserts that he is one himself. In 2011, “My books no longer sold enough for my publisher – under great financial pressure – to continue to put them out. My editor said he wanted to keep supporting me, but couldn’t. The phrase bean-counters was not used, but it was around and about.”
Being a cult writer is no bad thing, even if it means living according to your means with little cash to splash. Your fans truly love your writing, and new readers buy your books because they are passionate about discovering genuinely good writing, as opposed to just following you as the latest “big thing”.
Some writers are permanently damaged by the experience of being famous and falling from grace, while others adapt and bounce back better than ever; and pursue more fulfilling careers. Toby’s writing possesses a certain realism; his wry eye and offbeat insights resonate. In Wrestliana he tells new truths about manhood, society and the literary world in a way that has not been done before. Read it and savour it for yourself.
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