Caught by the River

Sports and Social

Wendy Erskine | 19th January 2024

Recently published by Bluemoose Books, Kevin Boniface’s short story collection ‘Sports and Social’ is strange, touching, pulsating with life, writes Wendy Erskine.

Many years ago, I completed a six-month course for people who were unemployed.  It was called ‘Reprographics for Community Publishing’.  We went every day to a building known as the Adelphi Centre where we were taught the fundamentals of producing local newssheets.  I met a guy there called Ewan, who happened to be a member of a camera club in his spare time.  He sometimes showed photos he had taken of electric guitars and he talked with some animation about the camera club’s Gadgets and Gizmos evenings.  The final chat I had with Ewan on the course centred on batteries for cameras. We didn’t meet again until about five years later when we  bumped into each other in a park.  We resumed the conversation from where we had left off. ‘You might remember that I’m a bit of a batteries freak, ’ he said.  When reading Sports and Social, with its precise attention to the material, its unselfconscious strangeness, its quotidian surreal, I thought about how Ewan and I could have featured briefly in one of the stories.  

I admire Kevin Boniface as a writer and person. I tell you that on the incredible off-chance that you might be anticipating one of those reviews where words like quotidian, every-day and ordinary, under the guise of useful description, are nonetheless imbued with an implication of the mediocre. When not so long ago I wasn’t able to do the radio show I host, Kevin, along with the photographer, writer and researcher Joanne Lee, stepped in to do a brilliant programme about the small things we overlook. So I’m a fan. 

In many ways, it’s quite easy to say what these stories are not.  In short story arcana, there are certain things afforded significance — like moments of epiphany or illumination, or the concept of future time, a zone that exists beyond the final full-stop and which involves the reader generating ramifications, repercussions and trajectories.  In terms of short story technics, it’s sometimes suggested that there can’t be too many characters and that every sentence needs to drive the story forward and that specificity of detail needs to be put to some end, should necessarily be freighted with at least some degree of symbolism.  Or that the meaning of the story resides in the ending.  Kevin Boniface is not interested in most of this, it seems to me.  For example there are multiple characters and there is no sharp sense of totalising schemes; structures seem decidedly uncontrived, driven not by the imperatives of a plot, but by the duration of a walk, a day, or, in the case of ‘Charisma Club’, a year.  

In an interview with Big Issue North, Kevin Boniface said: “I find scratching beneath the surface of the ordinary endlessly fascinating.  It’s like looking through a microscope and seeing things in life you would never realise existed unless you examined them really closely.”  All of the stories feature an incredible attention to the kind of detail which might often go unnoticed. In ‘The Man with the Fashionable Hairstyle’ the central character basically goes round to his friend’s house. That’s what happens.  But he passes a range of people, a little girl releasing some newts in the pond of a man who gives her a bowl of cherry tomatoes, someone installing a water feature while talking about plants in the garden, a table tennis player stripping the rubber off his bat.  Our man with the fashionable haircut pauses before a woman who lets a Labrador into a back garden and then a man in a front room composes a Facebook post expressing admiration for the NHS. How do you do a rainbow emoji? he asks.  And so it continues as ‘he passes…he passes…he hurries on…he passes…’ There are fragments of conversations, about Right Said Fred, about promising Tony you’d buy him some boxers, about good news: ‘Thank you thank you, this is such a relief.’  It’s just a guy walking round to his pal’s house.  But it is also strange, touching, pulsating with life.  I sometimes find that hyper specific texts with their brand names, their River Islands and Mr Kiplings have a self-conscious, cutesy feel to them or, worse, a distancing ironic humour.  Neither is evident here. The sustained, surface focus on the material renders characters and their worlds just as vividly as deep interiority and anatomy of feeling might do. 

Work features in many of the stories. Kevin Boniface is a postman and has published two previous collections of vignettes, Round About Town and Lost in the Post, which draw on the experiences of his postal rounds. ‘Transcendence 1999’ opens in the very early morning with the central character, after watching local job vacancies on the TV, making his way to work in a sorting office. ‘You fucking traitor! You’re fucking pimping yourself! You fucking whore!” someone shouts, a man who has ‘been up smoking weed all night rather than prostituting himself.’ The idiosyncratic conventions of work are delineated with care: the Investigations Bureau, for example, in their long Umbro football managers’ coats, do their routine search for undelivered mail.  So routine. So strange.  As the postal workers take their place at their frames, the building is vibrant and alive, ‘hustling and bustling, shouting, pushing, dragging, throwing, tipping.’ And then, when the narrator begins his journey there are the glorious glimpses of his experience: the creaking of UPVC soffits and fascia, a builder trying to sell Viagra, an anxious man receiving a registered letter, our narrator leaving his pouch at the end of a drive to avoid damaging any paintwork as he squeezes past a Mondeo. 

Art is part of life in these stories. The title of the brilliant ‘An Inventory of the Family Rubbish’  is a deliberate misnomer, since it is actually a bleak and profound Portrait of an Artist. In the final scene of ‘World of Interiors’ the narrator comes across an installation in a gallery, a re-creation of a bedroom in all its messy, shabby detail, a visual iteration of the precisely realised worlds of Sports and Social.  Both are art.  But what makes Boniface’s of a higher order is that his bedrooms and workplaces are full of people, often seen only briefly but indelibly.  Their lives are presented specifically in terms of detail — but also elliptically, without great explanation or interpretation.  In ‘Friday Art Club’, Mr Weatherburn  ‘recognises how much the arty set did for his wife’s confidence and well-being through some difficult times.’ What these difficult times were is mostly left unsaid.  Such lightness of touch, always. 


‘Sports and Social’ is out now and available here (£11.40).