Jeoff Dyer has always been a primarily young literary presence. Across a career that mixed novels, autobiographies, essays, criticism, memoirs, and journalism, there was a widespread curiosity about the disparate things that caught his eye: D.H. Lawrence; Jazz; a man is burning; Russian cinema; drugs; Somme… Of course, one of the main things that has always caught Dyer’s attention is Jeff Dyer, now he’s trying to bring his brand’s freshness, bounce and sense of humor to examining the not-so-young areas of “things are about to expire, the latest artist’s work, time is running out”. This is his moment. While Dyer may still be young at heart, he’s also now in his mid-60s, had a small stroke in his mid-50s and his tennis habit left him with “multiple twists of trouble: rotator cuff, hip flexor, wrist, and zigzag.” Neck, lower back, and lousy knees (both).”
Dyer’s obsession with tennis has grown in intensity over the years. He still plays twice a week – though these days he’s unable to over-serve – and his time on TV has doubled dramatically by sharing a friend’s password to his tennis channel. The endless speculation about Roger Federer’s retirement was naturally intriguing and it became important to him that “a book written with my own experience of the changes brought about by old age must be completed before Roger retires”. (“Yes, ‘Roger’, not ‘Federer,'” though I’ve never met him, he’s Roger, always and only Roger.”)
Yet just like Dyer’s book on D.H. Lawrence, from just anger, about not writing a book on DH Lawrence, so this book isn’t really about Federer. We’re learning bits and pieces of what it means for Dyer – right down to an accurate reading of two points he lost to Novak Djokovic in Wimbledon Final 2019. But he’s a minor player when compared to Dyer’s study of Bob Dylan’s grotesque concertos with endless charisma, the aged J.M.W. Turner throwing caution to the wind, the late Beethoven quatrains, the collapse of Nietzsche, or, of course, Dyer himself. Old readers will know the bones of his autobiography – Working Class Cheltenham; grammar school; Oxford. The boho life of the 1980s in Brixton, which coalesced into the writing profession – but excerpts from it here are seen through a new lens. He remembers how his relatives, living in a “low-wage, often unpleasant and unrewarding world of work” considered retirement something to “aspire to from a surprisingly young age. It was a form of promotion and practically ambitious.” The Duke of Edinburgh’s award camp (his hiatus after taking the bronze, resigning is also the subject of the book) is remembered as the moment he heard the news of George Best giving up football at just 26 years old. Clash at Lewisham Events is an elegy about the idea of the last train, which he and his friend missed. Another riff recalls the misery of the last orders being called in British pubs.
The spaciousness of Dyer’s themes allows him to roam widely. (And perhaps to collect some random bits of work in the book.) There are sections on the demise associated with the Plains Indians and Buffalo, and in Robert Redford, facing death alone on a doomed yacht, in 2013 movie All Is Lost. Among the many novels Dyer shot time were The Brothers Karamazov (his copy still has a 2012 receipt from a restaurant in Bologna between pages 80 and 81) and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time – the first attempt after volume V, II In the third book. His only regret was not to give it up sooner, “ideally before I started”.
But while he is a connoisseur of the monotonous details of failure—often subtly crafted for humor while being a goal—he also has a joyous appreciation for the transcendent and triumphant. A long list of “things one comes around last, late in the day” includes writing by Jane Rhys and Eve Babitz, Powell and Pressburger Colonel Blimp. In a book about things that are mostly late, the many signs of closing seem a little strange too early on. Not because they are sad, but because they are still so familiar that not even Dyer’s originality can make them amazing.
In another writer, Dyer’s penchant for self-centeredness can easily be exhausting. But the details he pulls off the show — free tennis check-in, taking shampoo from hotels on an industrial scale — feels real and embodies a kind of openness. And it is this openness and interest in things that encourages you to trust him and to follow him at times in mystical forays, such as Nietzsche’s idea of eternal repetition. But there is always a sense of humor, as well as the sense that he has looked closely and thought about things. He might remark that in any poetry reading, “No matter how pleasant it may be, the words we look forward to hearing are always the same: ‘I shall read two more poems.'” Yet his book is imbued with a deep interaction with poetry from Larkin to Tennyson, Milton and Louise Gluck and others.
Dyer acknowledges that he is moving toward demographic standards in that he finds himself increasingly reluctant to “step away from the military history department of libraries, with an ever-increasing focus on World War II.” But he’s also someone who still engages in Joshua Tree’s intricately designed hallucinogenic drug use, literally dreaming of playing soccer (“My Best Dream of the Year”) and riding his bike with the apparent enthusiasm of an eight-year-old. Age came upon him and youth did not leave. Knee braces in both legs are what keep him now on the tennis court, but like Federer, a reserve of flair, touch, timing and a keen eye is what keeps him in the game.