Alf Engers – ‘The King’ – is a mythical figure in the world of old-school time trialling.
He is a winner of multiple national titles, and the first person to complete a 25-mile time trial in under 50 minutes, breaking the 30mph barrier. But that’s not all. All of this was achieved in the face of adversity, with bad timing, worse luck, and possibly a bit of conservatism and aggressive bureaucracy all conspiring to thwart his efforts. We have on our hands the blueprint for a classic, by-the-numbers sports book. Fortunately, that’s not what Paul Jones has written.
If you’ve read my other reviews, you know that people are a lot more interesting to me than technical details or the specifics of their achievements. Yes, of course I’m ‘into’ cycling. But I’m not ‘into’ celebrities for their own sake. I need a bit more to go at. Fortunately, that seems to be Jones’ speciality. Just like in his previous book, A Corinthian Endeavour, he has been able to tame a swirling cloud of anecdotes as well as the overbearing encyclopaedia of time trialling history into something coherent, while planting Alf in the landscape and culture, and providing some context for his actions.
There’s something in Jones’ writing style that, if you let it, opens up a portal to another dimension, fully enveloping you in the world that you might only get a taste of through talking to your grandparents who have no computer. It’s a connection with another time, but also a magnetic connection on the human level as Paul recounts his visits to each of these former stars for his research and interviews. We see them in the present day as well as just as stationary objects in history. If you pick up I Like Alf and expect a nice book about one of the heroes of yesteryear, you will be pleased. It does a great job of telling the facts as they are and offering a nice narrative of the past through the lens of hindsight.
But to leave it there would be a disservice to the book, and to miss a big part of what makes it so alluring. The book is more than a biography of a man and a record of a historic event. It’s a deeply personal rumination on our own striving for success, for achievement; to do something that means something, so that we can finally rest on our laurels, and of the acceptance that that may never come. It’s also an acknowledgement of the willingness to continue the struggle in spite of this. Fifty minutes is an arbitrary number. But everything is. All we have is inside our heads, and if we can elevate ourselves for a moment in pursuit of something imaginary, then that might be all the purpose we need.
Is that enough to satisfy you? If you meet all of your goals, will you finally rest and call it a job well done for the rest of your life? As the book goes on, this idea continues to be explored. In Paul’s own words, ‘Do the results of ambition make you happy, do they just keep the demons at bay?’. Not everyone gets to be a champion, and you don’t get to stay a champion for very long. Is that going to sustain your contentment for the rest of your life?
Lots of sports books suck me in and leave me mulling things over for a while – I’m a delicate flower like that. Paul Jones’ do something different. They touch a nerve. Each time, I find myself exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of sentimentality. I spoke about this in my review of A Corinthian Endeavour, and it’s even more the case here. Paul Jones gets it. Definitely better than I do. If anything, I get it at little bit better now for having read his book.
This all sounds thoroughly depressing but, in my opinion, the opposite is true. If you can be happy before you’ve won, maybe you can be happy after you haven’t. Perhaps winning was never the point. You won’t find answers here or in I Like Alf, but you will find a sensitive and reflective approach to the idea.
Things don’t get much simpler than time trialling. Or, at least, that used to be the way. Or, at least, that’s the truth we like to impose upon the past when we look back. Time trialling was once seen as simple, and now has the outward appearance of such complexity as to bring anxiety over things like which shoe covers you’re wearing. People travel further than ever for work as well as sport, and so it’s more difficult to maintain a sense of local community. You can’t change the fact that things change. Underneath it all, though, we’re still looking for the same thing. Whatever that is. When the time comes that we’re all released back into the wild, and these events start up again, maybe we can keep that in mind, and take a step back from our own self-absorption to notice all of the other like-minded people doing the same weird things at the same time. There’s still a community there.
I really liked this one. I think it comes together more nicely than A Corinthian Endeavour to make a really lovely little work. If you’d like to read it – and I think you should – you can pick up a copy from all of the usual places. Better yet, you can get them directly from the author. He’d much prefer that, as he gets to keep more of the proceeds, rather than giving it to companies like Amazon. Follow the link below to do just that: