Legendary sports scribe not only wrote prodigiously and magnificently but enjoyed the journey immensely
By Mike Beamish
James Lawton was in the throes of the creative process — a dissection of embattled Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho — in late September last year, when death came suddenly on a sunny afternoon at his villa in Italy.
The former Vancouver Sun sports columnist, whose elegant and biting commentary was still being read in Canadian publications and websites, from the Toronto Sun to the Pincher Creek Echo, well into the 21st century, was half-way through his weekly column and doing what he did so beautifully. Until his dying breath.
Such was the respect for the great wordsmith — 75 at the time of his passing — that the Irish Independent, Lawton’s last employer, went to press and ran his unfinished column anyway.
This week, the Sports Journalists’ Association, which since 1948 annually has honoured the finest journalists and photographers in their field, will afford a rare honour to Lawton by celebrating his life at a memorial service Thursday inside St. Bride’s Church on Fleet Street, the central London thoroughfare synonymous with the national press and related industries in the United Kingdom.
St. Bride’s (considered “the spiritual home of media and the press, the journalists’ church”) is one of the most ancient places of worship in London. Poet John Milton was a parishioner, back in the day. Diarist Samuel Pepys was baptized there.
“Yes, it is rare for a journalist to be honoured there in such a way,” explained David Emery, Lawton’s former editor at the Daily Express. “Just shows what we all thought of him.”
It was Emery, then chief sports writer for the Express, who made entreaties to lure Lawton back to the UK while both were covering the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. Lawton was there representing the Vancouver Sun and the Southam newspaper chain, at the first and only appearance by Canada’s national men’s team in the global quadrennial competition.
“Jim was my first and obvious choice,” explained Emery, who was appointed sports editor of the Express that year. “It was a struggle. He loved Vancouver, the city, the people, the newspaper, the lifestyle. But the pull of Fleet Street proved too strong for Jim to resist. He had unfinished business. He wanted to be a prophet in his own land.”
Lawton returned in 1987, following a seven-year run in Vancouver, and was named Sports Writer of the Year by the SJA a year later for a searing report on Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s drug scandal at the 1988 Summer Olympics. “Drugs in sport were one of the biggest windmills he liked to tilt against,” Emery said.
That award-winning column, one of numerous accolades Lawton accumulated over his time, will be read once again at Thursday’s memorial by James Mossop, former chief sports writer of the Sunday Express.
It’s the final acknowledgement in a nearly 60-year newspapering career that began as a 16-year-old junior reporter with the Flintshire Leader, in Lawton’s native Wales. He went on to cover his first FIFA World Cup in 1966 (England emerged as champions for the first and only time) and he was in Montreal for the 1976 Olympics when Clark Davey, the managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, approached him about coming to Canada.
With wife Linda, the final arbiter before giving thumbs-up to his columns, and daughters Jacintha, 13, Victoria, nine, and two-year-old Hannah in tow, Lawton finally made it to Canada’s West Coast, late in 1979. The Whitecaps’ North American Soccer League team, fresh off its Soccer Bowl victory, was the toast of the town. With his intimate knowledge of the game and its personalities — the Whitecaps’ lineup was peppered with Brits — he was in his natural element when it came to soccer.
But he also wrote with an engaging touch about Canucks hockey — Lawton covered the team’s first appearance in the 1982 Stanley Cup finals — B.C. Lions football, the Crazy Canucks of World Cup downhill skiing fame, athletics and boxing, the latter perhaps his greatest love. Muhammad Ali was so smitten with Lawton’s wit and interviewing style that he invited him to lunch.
Sean Connery, filmdom’s James Bond, called him before the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin to say how much he enjoyed Lawton’s writing. Fancy that.
Somehow, between celebrity lunches and phone calls, the rigours of far-flung travel, the grind of a daily column and family duties, Lawton found time to write 17 books, the last — A Ringside Affair: Boxing’s Last Golden Age — which was well received on both sides of the Atlantic.
He also authored Jump: The Debbie Brill Story, a look at the innovative high jumper from Mission, B.C., who became the first woman in the Western hemisphere to soar over six feet (1.83 metres); Mission Impossible: How Lennox Lewis Unified the World Heavyweight Title, an examination of the professional career of the two-time Canadian Olympian and boxing gold medalist (Seoul, 1988); and explored the phenomenon that is National Football League in The All American War Game.
Lawton wrote extensively about the two Tigers — Eldrick (Tiger) Woods, the professional golfer, and Dave (Tiger) Williams, the professional hockey pugilist. Yet only the latter, the National Hockey League’s all-time penalty minutes leader, received the Lawton-esque treatment between the covers of a book. Tiger: A Hockey Story was the result.
“Writing is easy,” said the late, great American sports writer Red Smith. “I just open a vein and bleed.”
For the light-hearted, cherubic and charismatic Mr. Lawton, the craft of writing never seemed as daunting as it was for many others. If release of the muse required a penknife and some bloodletting, he certainly did a good job of disguising it. Lawton not only wrote prodigiously and magnificently but enjoyed the journey immensely. He worked long, slept little and always seemed game for an extended happy hour that stretched deep into the night.
During their years in North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley — Charlie Warner, the Sun’s chief photographer, helped the family settle in — the Lawtons frequented the iconic Pasparos Tavern, where Jim raved about the Greek lamb chops, entertained guests or revelled in holding court with colleagues.
“Happy days,” recalled daughter Vicky, who lives and works in Manchester. “Dad embraced the way of life. He grew a moustache, drove a big car, wore jeans and learned to fish. He met Canadian friendliness with unabashed enthusiasm for their bottomless positivity.”
While Vancouver remained close to his heart — daughter Jacintha went on to graduate with a law degree from the University of B.C. and works today as a Crown prosecutor in the city — he had no trouble summoning moral outrage on a working visit here following the death of inexperienced Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Olympics. Lawton believed the tragedy was the direct result of a policy allowing Canadians to hog practice rights.
Powerful, passionate, eloquent was his report, typical of the Welshman who was one of the last of a golden age of sports writers.
A headline, above his obituary in The Independent, summed it up well: “They Don’t Make Them Like James Lawton Anymore.”
Generations of British sports writers will bow their heads and say amen to that, this week at St. Bride’s Church.
– Mike Beamish is a former Vancouver Sun sports reporter/columnist.