Burning Ashes

Published: 2013
Pages: 179
Author: Lewis-Foster, H
Publisher: Dreamspinner
Rating: 1 stars

Burning Ashes
I have not—I confess it freely—been the most prolific contributor to this website’s impressive book review, but I love our summer game and its letters as much as the next man, and certainly no less than my colleagues. I do not, however, repose much faith in its fiction. The short stories are fair to middling, and Conan Doyle, Wodehouse and Ian Peebles have all contributed memorably, but my only previous novel-length experience, before the one under review, was of Maurice Moiseiwitsch’s A Sky-Blue Life (1953). When last I saw that penny dreadful, it was windmilling out of my bedroom window. I see now that it was resuscitated in 2006 by the misguided people at Coldspring. Avoid it.

One area in which Burning Ashes, H. Lewis-Foster’s debut novel, represents a clear improvement over Mr Moiseiwitsch’s is that she knows whereof she writes, or at any rate only rarely betrays her ignorance. In A Sky-Blue Life, we read of a yorker-length delivery “liable to bounce up under [the batsman’s] chin and knock him cold.” Ms Lewis-Foster may refer to Test Matches, appallingly, as “test matches,” but she can tell a googly from a golliwog, and she does not say this, for example, of a long-hop: “It seemed a loose one, but that was possibly deceptive the way Goodger could make them turn or hang.” As John Arlott observed, rather generously, in his Wisden review, “When Mr Moiseiwitsch’s characters are talking of life or rivalry, sex or ambition, they are convincing; as cricketers they live in an incredible world.”

She may know more about cricket, but he is the better writer. And I can contrive no more damning verdict than that. Burning Ashes does nothing, in other words, to elevate my grim opinion of cricket-themed novels. Had I but taken, before proceeding, a cursory glance at her publisher’s back-catalogue, I might have been more tolerant. Dreamspinner Press deals in “Gay Romance Novels and Short Stories.” Among its professed “best-sellers” is a volume entitled More Than Everything by one “Cardeno C.” (I, too, would have hidden behind an anonym.) One thought at first—or better say one hoped—that this would take the form of a rejoinder to Slavoj Žižek. One was wrong:

As a teenager, Charlie “Chase” Rhodes meets Scott Boone and falls head over heels in love with the popular, athletic boy next door. Charlie thinks he’s living the dream when Scott says he feels the same way. But his dreams are dashed when Scott moves unexpectedly and doesn’t return.

Then there is Bone Rider by “J. Fally,” which explains itself (or attempts to do so) in these terms:

Riley Cooper is on the run. Misha Tokarev, the love of his life, turned out to be an assassin for the Russian mob, and when it comes to character flaws, Riley draws the line at premeditated murder. Alien armour system McClane is also on the run, for reasons that include accidentally crashing a space ship into Earth and evading US military custody. A failed prototype, McClane was scheduled for destruction. Sabotaging the ship put an end to that, but McClane is dubbed a bone rider for good reason—he can’t live without a host body. That’s why he first stows away in Riley’s truck and then in Riley himself. Their reluctant partnership soon evolves into something much more powerful—and personal—than either of them could have imagined.

Burning Ashes is not nearly so woeful as any of that. Indeed, if we bear in mind the inherent shortcomings of the genre, it may fairly be said of Ms Lewis-Foster that she possesses a rare art: the art of making a bad story plausible. And she has a few good lines—one day I shall plagiarise “wine-warmed smile”—but she cannot resist a cliché: Tours are invariably described as “whirlwind,” bodies “quiver in anticipation,” hearts are set “racing with excitement,” and knights don “shining armour.” It may be true that we all have a novel inside of us, but better in than out in the present case. Burning Ashes appears to have been typed rather than written. If so, it was a great deal easier to type than it is to read. Its tone is vulgar; it lacks invention. It is designed to thrill the repressed and soothe the subliterate, and no doubt they will be thrilled and soothed. Nature, I fear, did not intend Ms Lewis-Foster to write.

Martin Amis has observed that you can tell a lot about a writer (or typist) of fiction from the care she takes over the names of her characters. Ms Lewis-Foster might have given hers more time. The cricketing escutcheon is already ornamented with such nominal masterworks as “Arthur Shrewsbury,” “Curtly Ambrose” and “Warwick Armstrong.” It gains nothing from the fabricated additions of “Charlie Greer” and “Tom Gardener.” No-one in Burning Ashes is quite so unfortunate as “Maurice Moiseiwitsch”—and “Scott Alverley” isn’t half bad—but I cannot abide “Nat Seddon.” One is tempted to adapt what Neville Cardus (unimprovable name) wrote about George Gaukrodger:

I regarded him (or rather his name—which amounted to the same thing) with open derision. “Gaukrodger!” I would murmur. And to this present time I have remained unshaken in the view that “Gaukrodger” was a heathenish name for a cricketer; I am glad he never played for England.

Take comfort, Cardus: Seddon plays for Australia. He is a rampaging fast bowler, ad modum Mitchell Johnson. His appearance is not described in any great detail, but in his English co-protagonist, Scott Alverley, we find a young batsman of curly blonde hair, “fine cheekbones,” “honey-coloured skin” and “cherry-pink lips”—a fictive Joe Root. Drafted into the national side for the final one-day international of an Ashes summer, “he’d never been so excited in his life.” Seddon cleans him up first ball.

But it wasn’t the crowd or the occasion or the quality of the bowling that had been his undoing. His legs had turned to jelly and his brain to mush because of one unforgettable look.

When his eyes met Nat’s, Scott saw something in his chestnut gaze he’d never seen before. He’d seen looks of lust from boys at school who hadn’t even tried to hide it, but this was lust and warmth and concern all rolled into one. He’d heard the rumours about Nat Seddon, and now he knew they were true.

Scott and Nat meet at a bar after the match. There ensues a distraught and tempestuous romance, and a consummation at once sickly and dull. It is impossible to empathise with these mono-dimensional heroes. For most of the narrative, their lives are unadulterated bliss, which is another way of saying that absolutely nothing happens. The following is exemplary of the dialogue:

Scott smiled curiously. “What’s so funny?”

“I was just wondering what your mam and dad make of us two.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, ending up with an Aussie bloke and a common-as-muck Geordie for in-laws. That’s seriously bad luck.”

Tootsie barked excitedly as Tom and Nat spluttered into laughter. Scott attempted to keep a serious face.

“Mum and Dad love you both to bits. You know that.”

The two men stopped laughing to look incredulously at Scott.

“Okay, Mum loves you both to bits, and Dad loves you … in his very own way.”

When Debs walked in through the door, Tom and Nat were helpless with laughter. The dog was yelping, desperate to join in the fun, and Abi sat, merrily bemused by it all.

This is revolting. (The dog’s name is Tootsie, for goodness’ sake.) Unfortunately, as I say, it is also representative. The bottom-numbing banalities of married life, even of gay married life, are not the stuff of literature. At most they make for padding. And Ms Lewis-Foster loves her padding like I love my pudding, or as Fred Susskind loved his pad-play.

At several points, however, disbelief is knocked from its complacent suspension. When Alverley presses Seddon to describe “the man of [his] teenage dreams,” he identifies a fictitious Australian captain named Bob Tatler:

He knew the successful skipper wasn’t the most glamorous of players, but Tatler had seemed like a good bloke, someone you could talk to and rely on. His wife and kids were a slight drawback, of course, but it hadn’t stopped Nat dreaming about him, and quite frequently too.

This might have been redeemed (in mirth-value) had Ms Lewis-Foster opted instead for the real-world Australian captain Bob Simpson. But it remains the case that no queer stripling ever indulged a fantasy about an older man merely because he “seemed like a good bloke.”

Sex features heavily, as one would expect (and as the above may have intimated). There is none of the toe-curling prurience of Edmund White, but one might be forgiven for thinking that sex is this novel’s raison d’être. It treads without care that fine and disappearing line between romance and pornography. In neither genre is your reviewer conversant, but I would venture to suggest that its eroticism is passable. For here, too, Ms Lewis-Foster knows whereof she writes; I cringed only thrice at the sex itself. It is when sex is entwined with romance that things get a bit gross:

Sinking onto Scott’s chest, Nat thought he could lie like this every night for the rest of his life. On top of Scott, inside him, with him in any and every way possible. Then he remembered, with a sickening pain in his gut, that this was their last night together….

Nat wondered how many times he could tell Scott he loved him. The answer? Never enough….

His body was arching, his face contorting in waves of impossible rapture. And he was telling Scott that he loved him, again and again and again…

Kingsley Amis (father of Martin) would have described this as “cock-crinkling.” But presumably one would not buy a book like Burning Ashes were one not keen on that kind of thing. And at times, I must admit, it is quite titillating. Reader, do not deny that you thrill to the idea of a fast bowler’s venting his sexual frustration like so:

Nat almost pitied the poor batsmen who’d faced him over the past few weeks. Even his own players were reluctant to take him on in practice. His bowling had always been aggressive, but now he was positively lethal. He always kept to the letter of the game’s laws, but he knew he was pushing their spirit to the limit.

He couldn’t help it. To say he was frustrated was an understatement. He’d only spent one week with Scott, but in that time Scott had become part of him: his voice, his laugh, the tickle of his hair against Nat’s cheek. Nat could still feel the flicker of Scott’s tongue, the touch of his fingers, his throbbing tightness closing around him. If he didn’t see Scott soon, Nat might be the first bowler to decapitate a man with a cricket ball.

Or of a father thus scolding his son:

“You stupid, stupid boy. Do you honestly think you’ll stay in the side once this gets out? You could have picked anyone for your little fling, but no, it had to be an Australian bloody cricketer. Is this why you gave up Oxford? For a shag with some muscle-bound moron? You utterly brainless child.”

Charming, as I say, but ill-written and forgettable, Burning Ashes is cricket’s first gay novel. But it is more gay than cricketing. The sport itself plays a minor role, as a foil or backdrop to the main action, which occurs mainly in the bedroom. This puts it beyond the reach and interest of most visitors to this site, but it does furnish an excuse for a long-overdue discussion of cricket’s reserve about sexuality.

Our sporting codes are fast becoming more open and more liberal. Football has its anti-bigotry drives; rugby has Gareth Thomas. But cricket is oddly reticent. When Steven Davies came out in 2011, he was the first and is so far the only professional to do so. This brave and admirable decision—”If I can just help one person to deal with their sexuality, then that’s all I care about”—was met with a rampart of silence. He has not played for England since. True, he suffered little or none of the abuse levelled at Thomas, and is considerably less famous in his code than was Thomas in his. It is also true that rugby is a “manlier” game than cricket (at least to those who locate their manhood in grunting noises and excessive physical contact). Even so, the silence is well-nigh conspiratorial.

When Steve Waugh was asked how he would respond, as Australian captain, to the revelation of a gay player in the dressing room, he gave the most awkward answer I have ever heard him give. This is curious. Cricket, notoriously, is “a gentleman’s game.” It ought, if anything, to be at the forefront in these matters. It is difficult to believe that Davies is an outlier; more likely there are and have been scores like him. Keith Booth has made defensible inferences about George Lohmann, and some of what Cardus wrote about Ted McDonald would erect an eyebrow today. But the literature of the game touches only obliquely on the subject, if it touches on it at all. The main achievement, then, of Burning Ashes—its only achievement—could be to break a silence that is calcifying into a taboo.

Update: The outing this week, or rather the coming out, of professional footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger underscores my conclusion.

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