In-depth blog about former slave and boxing legend Bill Richmond (1763-1829); subject of Luke G. Williams' biography, published by Amberley in August 2015.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Bill Richmond bookshelf: 'A sort of magic' - Writing the prizefight by David Snowdon

Over the next few months I’ll be taking the time to review some of the books, articles and research facilities which I have found useful during the decade-long process of researching and writing Richmond Unchained. So far in the series I have looked at Peter Fryer's Staying Power, Pierce Egan’s Boxiana, the biographies of Tom Cribb and Tom Spring penned by Jon Hurley and Tom Reiss' The Black Count. Today I examine David Snowdon's award-winning Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan's Boxiana World.

Pierce Egan is one of the most fascinating and influential figures in the history of sporting discourse. Despite his (over?) use of the idiomatic Regency lingo known as 'Flash', which renders some passages within his work nearly incomprehensible to modern readers, his breezy enthusiasm and vivid world-play and imagery remain a joy to read.

During the 1810s and 1820s, the wonderfully idiosyncratic Egan was as famous as many of the prize fighters whose exploits he recounted. Yet he has rarely received the critical attention or analysis that he deserves, either within popular or academic circles.

John Cowie Reid's 1971 book Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency England was the only book I knew of from modern times devoted to Egan and his oeuvre ... until, that is, the 2013 publication of Snowdon's impeccably researched and absolutely fascinating Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan's Boxiana World.

Given the existence of Reid's work, which deals very efficiently indeed with the biographical paraphernalia of Egan's life and times, Snowdon wisely eschews the temptation to merely produce another biography.

Instead he attempts something far more ambitious: namely a literary, historical and socio-cultural analysis of Egan's literary style, identifying its influence on his contemporaries, as well as among writers who succeeded him, such as Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. Snowdon's account of the rivalry between Egan and John Bee - who at one point 'took over' the Boxiana brand - deserves particular attention for its comprehensive nature and insightful treatment.

Snowdon's summation and analysis of Egan's unique talents is masterfully articulated. "It might be said," he writes at one point, "that Egan weaves 'a sort of magic' in his transformation of sporting scenes. It is the skilful unorthodoxy practised by similarly inventive chroniclers that particularly befits the sports-writing genre, and renders it distinguishable by their untrammelled ability to blend multifarious techniques. In terms of their linguistic inventiveness and spirit, they are effectively poets."

As well as examining Egan's significance and style, Snowdon also examines the fascinating role of what he terms 'pugilistic reporting' in the development during the early 19th century of notions of morality, 'military readiness' and British national identity.

Many scribes within boxing writing circles inevitably sneer at those writers who adopt an academic approach - an inverse snobbery aptly summed up by the fact that there still exists an award for 'excellence in boxing journalism' which is named after Nat Fleischer, one of the shoddiest boxing historians of all time - but Snowdon's work is a glorious vindication of the importance of academic rigour, research and methodology.

Writing the Prizefight illuminates our understanding of Egan, the world in which he operated and the way in which he orchestrated language to dazzling effect. Yet it is no hagiography. Lofty claims have been made in the past concerning the extent of Egan's influence on, for example, Dickens, and the sphere of sports journalism as a whole, yet Snowdon's precise analysis avoids shoddy generalisations or hyperbole. His judgements are sober and restrained - and all the more impressive for it.

The depth of Snowdon's research, coupled with his obvious passion for the subject matter at hand, is inspiring and provides an intimidating yard-stick by which all future studies of Egan will be measured. Writing the Prizefight is not only an illuminating, fiercely intelligent read, but also a clear labour of love - from the precise research, to the well-chosen illustrations, to the superlative glossary of 'Flash' terms -  every page has been lavished with an admirable attention to detail and the determination to achieve excellence. 

It is no wonder that Writing the Prizefight deservedly won the 2014 Lord Aberdare Literary Prize for Sports History, awarded by the British Society of Sports History, for it is a book which should be considered compulsory reading not only for anyone with an interest in Egan and boxing, but also for literary historians and anyone with an interest in the cultural context of Georgian times.

When awarding the Aberdare prize, the panel noted admiringly that Snowdon's work has "opened up an area of sport history that had been neglected", an appropriate summary of its groundbreaking status within sporting history circles.

Like Egan before him, Snowdon possesses 'a sort of magic' and his book has pride of place on my Bill Richmond bookshelf. If it isn't there already, it should be on your bookshelf too.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Bill Richmond bookshelf: The Black Count by Tom Reiss

Over the next few months I’ll be taking the time to review some of the books, articles and research facilities which I have found useful during the decade-long process of researching and writing Richmond Unchained. So far in the series I have looked at Peter Fryer's Staying Power, Pierce Egan’s  Boxiana and the biographies of Tom Cribb and Tom Spring penned by Jon Hurley. Today I examine The Black Count, Tom Reiss' account of the life and times of General Alexandre Dumas, a talented soldier in Revolutionary France and father of one of the greatest storytellers of all time ...

The Black Count is a somewhat unusual choice of book for my 'Bill Richmond bookshelf' series, as it is a volume with no direct connection to Georgian boxing or, indeed, to Richmond himself.

True, the events of The Black Count take place within the same period of history as Richmond Unchained (Dumas was born in 1762, the year before Richmond), but the real link between this book and mine is in its purpose and intent - Tom Reiss set out to resurrect the reputation of a hitherto unjustly neglected figure from 'black history', and my aim with Richmond Unchained is exactly the same.

When I first read The Black Count in 2013, I had been researching Bill Richmond's life for ten years. I had always intended to write up my research into a full-length biography but, truth be told, I had allowed that ambition to drift and there was a very real danger that I was not going to get around to writing the book for several more years, if at all.

Reiss's passion to ensure Dumas's story was told and his remarkable life was appropriately honoured was infectious. Reading his book shook me out of my creative torpor; so consummately crafted was the narrative and so vivid, yet unpretentious, was Reiss's prose that I was immediately inspired to craft my Richmond research into a book proposal.  If I hadn't read The Black Count, I might still be sitting on my research and Richmond Unchained might still be unwritten ...

Anyway, that's more than enough egotistical self-reflection! Let's get back to the book at hand ...

The central figure of The Black Count is General Alexandre Dumas, a remarkable, larger-than-life man who was born in Saint Domingue in 1762 to a white French father and a black female slave. The mixed-race Dumas moved to France as a teenager and later enlisted in the army, ultimately rising from the rank of private to the heights of divisional general, playing a vital and prominent role in the Revolutionary Wars, and winning a reputation for military brilliance and bravery. He also fathered one of the greatest story-tellers of all time - a son, also named Alexandre, among whose works were immortal tales such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

Dumas senior was a contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte and the connection and relationship between these two mighty men lies at the heart of the book, and provides it with plenty of its narrative energy. I won't spoil the book by giving away any more than that, but suffice it to say that Reiss's handling of the parallel lives of the two men, and how they intersect, is masterfully crafted as, indeed, is the whole book.

Reiss possesses an enviable talent for combining the rigour of a top historian with the narrative sweep of a master thriller writer. Combining these two forms within one book is a challenging feat that he accomplishes with aplomb. Impressively, he avoids the banality of lowest common denominator history and also ensures that he does not succumb to the breathless clichés of a paperback hack. The book is compulsive and thrilling, yet also possesses intellectual substance.

Ultimately, this is a book that deserves the accolade of 'masterpiece' because it works on so many levels: as biography, as a historical detective story, as a military thriller and as social and cultural comment. Many books of such technical brilliance fail to pack an emotional punch, yet, as well its immaculate word-craft, The Black Count is also infused with love. Indeed, it is, on a philosophical level, a compelling treatise on the importance of memory and love, and their interconnected nature.

Reiss's deep love of his subject shines through the entire book, yet he never falls into the trap of hagiography. However, the most touching demonstration of love within the book is the love of Dumas, the novelist, for his father, the great soldier - the love of a son for a man who, tragically, he barely ever knew. Through his painstaking research, Reiss advances the theory that Dumas used the pages of his novels to resurrect his father's memory and bring his spirit to glorious life, not only for himself but also for millions of readers.

This is a personal mission that Reiss honours nobly; indeed, he admits that he was inspired to write the book in the first place because of his own childhood memory of a vivid passage from Dumas' memoirs about his father. As he movingly explains towards the beginning of the book:

"To remember a person is the most important thing in the novels of Alexandre Dumas. The worst sin anyone can commit is to forget. The villains of The Count of Monte Cristo do not murder the hero, Edmund Dantès - they have him thrown in a dungeon where he is forgotten by the world. The heroes of Dumas never forget anything or anyone: Dantès has a perfect memory for the details of every field of human knowledge, for the history of the world and for everyone he has encountered in his life. When he confronts them one by one, he finds that the assassins of his identity have forgotten the very fact that he existed, and thus the fact of their crime.

I undertook the project of reconstructing the life of the forgotten hero General Alexandre Dumas because of that passage in his son's memoirs, which I read when I was a boy and have always remembered."

The Black Count stands as a beautiful epitaph for two great and charismatic men, both named Alexandre Dumas. It is an essential book for anyone with an interest in history, literature, the bonds between fathers and sons and the vital importance for all human beings of remembrance and love.

In short, it is a book for anyone with a pulse ... or, most important of all, a heart.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Bill Richmond bookshelf: Jon Hurley on the two Toms

Over the next few months I’ll be taking the time to review some of the books, articles and research facilities which I have found useful during the decade-long process of researching and writing Richmond Unchained. This series began with a look at Peter Fryer's Staying Power and Pierce Egan’s  Boxiana and continues today with a look at two biographies penned by Jon Hurley ...

Over the last couple of decades there have been several biographies published relating to personalities from the bare-knuckle era of boxing. Jon Hurley is responsible for two of them - namely 1996's Tom Spring: Bare-knuckle champion of All England and 2009's Tom Cribb: the life of the Black Diamond.

Truth be told, these two volumes are a somewhat mixed bag, with the Spring book far superior to the Cribb offering. As a Herefordshire man himself, Hurley's passion for Spring and his local area shines through his first volume, which successfully evokes the feeling of both rural and city life, thanks to some well-chosen references and some elegant and evocative descriptive touches. Hurley's research is sound and thorough, and the lavish use of illustrations throughout the book is admirable, attractive and illuminates his subject.

If evoking time and place is one of Hurley's strengths then the same cannot be said for his analysis of Spring's character, personality and motivations. Unlike the very best biographers, Hurley never really gets under Spring's skin or reveals anything terribly personal or insightful about him. As a result Spring emerges as a somewhat enigmatic figure. His gentlemanly nature is stressed, as well as his highly skilled pugilistic abilities and formidable powers of determination, but there is little worthwhile insight beyond that.

Nevertheless, despite its slight nature when dealing with character and motivation, Hurley does succeed in crafting a superbly readable and enjoyable narrative, for the first three-quarters of the book at least. Unfortunately, the final third of the book (once Spring has retired) often lapses into a somewhat mechanical and tiresome chronological account of fights in which Spring played a minor role, either as a second or manager of other boxers, without offering much illuminating comment. Furthermore, the book's absence of significant social and historical contextual comment or analysis is also a flaw.

These are relatively minor quibbles, however. Taken as a whole, this is an elegantly written and hugely enjoyable volume, written with both care and love, which succeeds in shining some much-needed attention on one of the many forgotten but significant figures of English sporting history.

A good measure of a biography is whether or not, after reading it, you feel the need to check if another book on the same person exists. In this case I'm happy to declare that Hurley has left little, if any, room for a further tome on Spring; in other words, aside from the shortcomings listed above, this is a pretty definitive work, which represents a fine achievement, particularly as it appears to have been Hurley's first book.

Despite its merits, the book's influence on Richmond Unchained is slight. I only found a reasonably priced second-hand copy very recently, so I had already completed several drafts of my book by the time I read it. Nevertheless, there are a couple of interesting anecdotes about Richmond within Hurley's book, even though he is wrongly referred to at one point as Tom Richmond!

All in all, Tom Spring: Bare-knuckle champion of All England is a meritorious volume which is well worth seeking out in a second-hand store (Amazon marketplace currently have several copies for sale, albeit at quite high prices). It's also worth listening to Hurley's appearance, alongside legendary sports journo Frank Keating, on Radio 4's Great Lives programme in which the duo argue for Spring's greatness.

Sadly, Hurley's second 'bare-knuckle biography', Tom Cribb: the life of the Black Diamond, is nowhere near as accomplished as his work on Spring. The research is less thorough and  and the contextual flaws of the earlier book are even more pronounced, particularly considering Cribb's vast socio-cultural significance. Hurley's account of the first Molineaux versus Cribb fight is particularly disappointing, in that it fails to address any of the controversies or conflicting accounts which surround this monumental event, as well as offer any adequate analysis of the contest's racial, national and international significance.

Indeed, a lack of historical rigour permeates the whole book, with frequent examples of stories and anecdotes from later, and somewhat unreliable sources - such as Miles' Pugilistica - being accepted as fact without the slightest hesitation or any sense of due caution and historical diligence.  

Bizarrely, Hurley's writing style has also undergone an unwelcome metamorphosis since his first book - whereas the Spring book was written with elegance and restraint, the Cribb tome is littered with painfully embarrassing and inappropriate uses of figurative language, most of which rely on modern reference points. For example, when Jem Belcher is knocked down Hurley states that he "went down like Linda Lovelace", while Cribb at one point is described as "moving like Darcey Bussell". This stylistic misjudgement is so grating that it spoils what would otherwise have been a perfectly readable, albeit somewhat uninspired book.

Cribb is a huge figure in English pugilistic history - scratch that, he's a huge figure in English social and cultural history, who is deserving of a definitive, comprehensive and all-encompassing biography. Hurley's book, quite simply, isn't it. Indeed, it's a book which I can scarcely believe originates from the same source as Tom Spring: Bare-knuckle champion of All England - it fails, by quite some distance, to build on the promise shown by that volume.

One final point: in common with most other pugilistic historians and writers, Hurley makes the mistake of referring to Cribb and Bill Richmond as lifelong enemies. The truth, as you'll discover in Richmond Unchained, is much more interesting and complex than that.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Richmond Unchained: illustrations in progress

As Richmond Unchained nears completion, here is a glimpse of some of the preliminary and original artwork by Trevor Von Eeden which, once complete and inked, will grace the book. (Click on the image to see a larger version! The only illustration not by Trevor is the cover design in the top left-hand corner, which uses Dighton's original etching of Bill Richmond)

Trevor is a renowned artist who has worked for Marvel and DC Comics among other outlets, as well as being the writer-artist behind the brilliant graphic novel The Original Johnson. He has produced some truly amazing work for Richmond Unchained, recreating many crucial scenes and characters from Bill Richmond's life, which I can't wait to see in print.

The final versions of these illustrations will appear in the book when it is published in August. A selection of original prints of Bill and his contemporaries, the majority sourced from my own private collection, will also feature in the book. Until then I thought you'd enjoy this sneak peek of what Trevor has been working on.

Oh yes, and here's a reminder of what this project is all about!

The biography of the world’s first black sporting superstar
By Luke G. Williams

Today the name of the bare-knuckle boxer Bill Richmond is largely unknown to the wider public, but he is one of the most significant sportsmen in history and was one of the most celebrated celebrities of the Georgian era. The fact no biography has ever been devoted to Richmond is startling, for the story of his life and career is a compelling and thrilling tale, played out against the backdrop of a series of significant historical events.

As one of the first black men to survive and thrive in white-dominated English society, Richmond is long overdue recognition as one of the key figures in sporting as well as social history. Born into slavery in Staten Island, New York during colonial rule, Richmond escaped from a life of servitude by winning his freedom as a young boy and carved a new life for himself in England as a cabinet-maker and then a renowned and widely respected prize-fighter and trainer.

From his humble origins, Richmond, through force of will and personality, fought his way to the top table of British society, ultimately fulfilling an official role at the coronation celebrations of King George IV in 1821. Richmond’s amazing life encompassed encounters and relationships with some of the most prominent men of the age, including the progressive Earl Percy, the writer William Hazlitt, the dissolute Prince Regent and the wild and untameable Lord Camelford.

The story of Bill Richmond is not only an incredible tale of personal advancement and triumph, but also the story of a life which was shaped, informed and influenced by a series of turbulent historical events – including the American War of Independence, the fight for black emancipation and Britain’s long-running conflict with the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Luke G. Williams’ biography, the first full-length account of Richmond's life, utilises over a decade of research on both sides of the Atlantic, revealing details, sources and new facts about Richmond’s life that have never before been published. In separating myth from fact and legend from reality, for the first time, the full story of Bill Richmond’s life and times is brought gloriously to life.

Richmond Unchained will feature illustrated material from the Georgian period, as well as new and exclusive illustrations by acclaimed American artist Trevor Von Eeden.