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Some heroes, and a few thoughts:

Simon Jones. His catalogue of comebacks are inspirational – there’s a seriously moving interview with him in the Guardian, I think at the beginning of last season, as the man who destroyed Australia with swing at Old Trafford in 2005 described without a hint of self-pity his ongoing fitness problems and difficulties in finding a club. His body is still paying off England’s debt for that Ashes victory.

Ian Botham. Watch Headingley and the rest of that heroic series and you simply see a man waking up from a bad dream, joyfully rediscovering his form and prescence following a rough period as England captain. I don’t know him, but his modesty and sheer super-dad blokeness, not to mention tireless efforts for charaadeee, make him a monolithic male role model that anyone would be proud to call a friend.

Jonny Wilkinson. Rugby is not my game (and I was out mountain biking in the Forest of Dean when England won and Wilkinson punted that final drop goal between the New Zealand posts) but this is a man who has all but been pounded into powder by a brutal sport only to be rebuilt time and time again so he can hurl himself back into the grinder. His body, destined for a splintered old age, must hate it. He clearly lives for it.

I’m sure there are more – and I’m sure some might not be sportsmen! But these guys fascinate me. Botham isn’t quite the same, in that he rose to what you might perceive as the pinnacle of England captain only to lose, Samson-esque, the very powers which made him a legend, and then came back from this near-humiliation to realise his strength again at the crucial moment. Surely he was inspired by Sammy’s Super T-Shirt. No? Ok.

Botham’s triumph at Headingley and on was after he’d shed the captaincy and its weight, and was able to be himself again – not necessarily selfish, since he’s a champion of team spirit and the after-innings pint. He had his identity back, no longer required to be something he wasn’t, though it might have once been something he wished he was.

But Simon Jones and Jonny Wilkinson are the opposite, in a way, driving as they do their bodies into producing forces which ruin them – a divorce of their identity of spirit as natural and supremely gifted athletes, from their poor physical shells which just couldn’t keep up with that power. That’s too negative though. It’s more that their willpower, their sheer desire and hunger and innate talent took their bodies to another level, burning their candles at both ends as they did so.

The fact that they’ve both come back and back into the fray proves this awesome power of spirit but also their admirable determination. No doubt both men danced with doubt during their many rehabilitations, perhaps even during good times, but they never seem to have wavered or reconsidered. Botham too, despite failing as a captain, gave it all he had until stepping out before he was pushed (pride, perhaps, but can you blame him?). But he never gave up on who he was, just on what he wasn’t.

Even five minutes ago, when I hadn’t given it the right amount of thought or respect, I’d have said that I didn’t believe people are born to do something. But that’s balls. I don’t believe in fate or predestination. This isn’t about that. This is about men and women who are born to be something, not by accident or without effort (though there are perhaps those people too) but through enourmous effort and will.

I haven’t written anything but this in a long time, maybe three weeks, and Gunny is beginning to wonder if I’ve broken my fingers. This is the first post I’ve written about writing for a long time. I’m worried that I’m in the way of my writing, but I think I have to accept that I will always be a part of my writing – what’s important will be to understand and learn how to turn that perceived weakness into a strength.

And perhaps that’s why these men are such giants to me. Botham’s weakness as a captain was merely proof of his strength as an unshackled powerhouse, a teamplayer who would stand above when called to do so. Jones and Wilkinson, both brittle bodies, have in all ways achieved far, far greater things than stronger men more suited to their sports will ever reach for, let alone grasp and own through feat of will.

If I allow myself to be brazen, I could be a very good storyteller. I know I have the ideas to write stories, that I have a talent for writing something you can pick up and put down and smile about or enjoy in bursts. I could be a great storyteller. But it’s too easy, it’s too weak, it’s not hard enough. It comes without effort. It isn’t hard enough.

I want to struggle, to wail in agony over my work. I need it to sing, to bring tears. I’m not happy with good. I want tragic. I want heartbreak, meaning, rousing, stimulating. I don’t simply want to touch that fluttering edge, I want to step beyond it, to send back messages from the storms on the other side, to express the force and the fear and the passion and the truth of that frontier of human experience.

How can I be consumed by the swelling surf without wading through the shallows? I can’t. But my exploration of my past gives me a constructive ‘easy’ exercise which can take me out to deeper waters. The weakness I’ve worried over for so long, my all-too-present self, is the vessel to carry me there. I just have to learn how to pilot it into the wind and out beyond that edge, that shimmering barrier, to where personal becomes everypersonal.

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About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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