SA’s raconteur racquet man aces another memoir
Gordon Forbes has published his third book and the humour, wit and piquant memories are all there in bucket loads
I’ll Take the Sunny Side
Gordon Forbes published his globally acclaimed A Handful of Summers in 1978. What a story, full of "bubbling wit", as the London Times put it. Everyone was reading it and reviews poured in from all over.
As Rod Laver, number one tennis player of his generation in the 1970s, said: "Forbesy got it right – forehands, fun, food and laughter."
His second book, Too Soon to Panic, was published in 1995, again to worldwide adulation. When I picked up his third book, I’ll Take the Sunny Side, which appeared recently, I thought "great storyteller … but what more can this old bugger have up his sleeve?"
Plenty as it turns out! The humour, the wit, the piquant memories are all there in bucket loads. Rich veins of nostalgia course through the pages of this book.
This bloke is an inveterate scribbler and has taken notes all his life.
Forbesy writes that the inspiration for his third book was derived from conversations with his mates at their monthly Friday lunchtime meetings at Johannesburg’s Country Club.
The comments, the arguments, the discussions are all faithfully retold (and no doubt embellished); seven old soldiers having their weekly fun – vaulting ambitions, selfishness and quest for mammon having long since been sidelined by the sorrows and tribulations of this life.
And what a joy it is to be invited into their midst at "the Table". Certainly, this book will appeal primarily to the old soldiers, who may be fading away but having a helluva ball!
One of the most fascinating discussions around the Table involved the differences between the modern era of tennis and that in which Forbesy played.
I have often wondered what it is precisely that has robbed the game of its magic — what Australian tennis great Ken Rosewall called "the sweet era of tennis"?
Is it pure mammon — the players of Forbesy’s generation could barely afford a hotel room — or is it me getting older? Why is it that, apart from the singles finals for men and women in the four majors, I barely watch the game at all?
Much the same applies to all sporting events where the proliferation of matches (for the sake of mammon) has contributed inexorably to the devaluation of the currency — and this has persisted uninterruptedly during the past two decades, in tennis, cricket, rugby and football.
Where is that engrossing, riveting television — Bjorn Borg versus Jimmy Connors, Borg versus John McEnroe — and so many similar confrontations of gladiatorial appeal?
What has changed? Forbesy nails it in the sweet spot: responding to a series of volleys around the Table, he explains: "Every sport has changed … when Nadal plays Ferrer (fellow Spaniard) for four hours, every point is a rally of 10 shots or more, all hit the same way.
"If you studied the top fifty players of my era, you’d find that every one of them had a different style of play … now nearly all the top 50 players play identical tennis…."
Game of algorithms
It was a moment of blinding coruscation and confirmed my worst fears: players of today are nothing more than algorithms playing according to a series of programmed computer steps.
And, sadly, it’s going to get worse. Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Amazon … they’ve got us all sussed long before we log in. Who wants to watch a contest between algorithms until one of them disintegrates?
Not Forbesy. He first hit a ball under his parents’ tutelage on a gravel court on their farm, Dunkeld, near Burgersdorp.
On a visit there many years ago as a schoolboy, I asked his older brother, Jack, if he was as good as Gordon. "I was a much better player, but someone had to stay behind to dose the sheep and fix the windmills!"
As schoolboys in Grahamstown, I remember watching a match between Forbes (then SA’s number one player) and the up-and-coming Cliff Drysdale.
We were taken aback by Gordon’s repeated "swearing", exclaiming "Rats" whenever he hit the ball out.
The expression soon caught on among us impressionable schoolboys, until "Pillort" Trollip convinced us to amplify it to "effing rats".
Born with a genial and sunny disposition, Forbesy’s many forays into his past are often laugh-out-loud moments. There are many in the book — including the inimitable contortions of the colonel’s serving action, the Forbes Family Band that played at a dance for the 1949 touring All Blacks in Burgersdorp, his encounters with so many celebrities — Peter Ustinov, virtually all the players of his generation, the players "who live on my [book] shelves".
There are also anecdotes about his multiple friends — from Mark McCormack (multi-millionaire sports promoter), many business tycoons of the 1970s and 1980s in SA and his doubles partner and improbable alter ego, Abe Segal. His descriptions of Abe’s art career, especially his upside-down paintings, had me in stitches.
And sorrow. The unexpected loss of his beloved sibling, Jean, at a relatively early age (more fully related in his second book, Too Soon to Panic) is tenderly recalled, along with the passing of great friends, including McCormack.
So, too, the death in April 2017 of Segal, whom he’d met 61 years before – "the man who he never ever heard complain". And later one of his fellow Table mates, author Tim Couzens, who had fallen into a coma after suffering a bad fall.
Early in his whimsical narrative, Forbes describes how he and Segal had to travel to Romania, then behind the Iron Curtain, to play a Davis Cup match. His opponent was the very colourful Ion Tiriac, "a master of every tennis trick in the book".
Tiriac spun his racquet for the toss before the start of the game and asked: "What you say, Forbey, rough or smooth?" As "Forbey" and his fellow seniors round the Table know all too well, life seldom gives us that choice.
For all that, Forbesy can scarcely boast a bucket list; he’s done it all and kept the sunny side up. As Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady would have put it, "Gawd bless ya, Forbesy".