Dai Smith reviews A Late Return: Table Tennis à la carte by William Rees, a bookseller living in the south of France who recently rediscovered his love for Table Tennis.
Good books about competitive sport are rare. They need three things to succeed. They must find a way in words to convey the intrinsic nature of the activity, they must understand the separate dimensions of time and space in which the competitors temporarily exist, and they must engage the reader’s attention in the profound social and psychological significance of the trivial pursuit being followed. Short good books about competitive sport are even rarer. Bill Rees, an itinerant second-hand book dealer happily exiled in France from Wales, has written a great one, and on the unlikely subject of League Table Tennis for obsessed veterans in the deep south of France. He is, of course, one such obsessive participant.
We meet him, and his village copains in the team, as they barrel down the river and mountain gorges of the Languedoc to the drab and dusty sea-lagoon town of Meze for a Sunday match-up with their rivals. For us it will be a day of acquaintance with the players, their hang-ups and skills and foibles, as they step out of the stifling heat of a Midi morning into an air conditioned School Gym where row upon row of navy blue tables await them and their destiny. These games are for regional bragging rights and, for a few, entry to the national finals. We plunge into a flurry of anger and ecstasy, game by game, from top spin and edges to backhands and smashes, smelling the tang of Gauloises sucked at nervously outside and getting to taste inside, at aperitif time, the triumphant swallowing of a milky pastis with a trophy clutched for victory, or lost in despair. A whole, self-regarding world in a cameo as thrillingly enticing as it is cool and witty.
How does he do it? By writing a percussive prose whose abrupt rhythms of an alternate intensity and stasis reproduce the heart-stopping pause and then kinetic ferocity of the play. In the mind as well as on the table. By making you see and hear the intricacies of this wonderfully named sport of ping-pong whether or not you have ever twirled a bat or held a miniature white ball between thumb and finger. By causing you to suspend belief and accept that this trivial pursuit is, by virtue of the dreams it evokes and the memories it will deliver, not a sideline to the true pulse of existence but the playful purpose of life as it should be truly lived. A gem. I loved it.
A Late Return: Table Tennis à la carte by William Rees is available now from Parthian.
Professor Dai Smith is a novelist and historian, a former Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Glamorgan and formerly Head of Broadcasting (English) at BBC Wales.