The Tuesday Portrait: Ray Hudson
by Brian Phillips · July 29, 2008
“O what am I that I should not seem / For the song’s sake a fool?” —Yeats
It’s impossible to separate Ray Hudson’s appeal as a sportscaster from his appeal as an object of mockery. But because even most of the people who mock him basically like him, no one ever quite acknowledges this, and a strange situation arises in which he is almost never praised without being covertly made fun of, or made fun of without being covertly praised. His manic style of commentary—the ecstatic shrieks, the furry-voiced declarations of love, the hysterical crudeness (on Tom Cruise: “If he smelt a soccer jockstrap, he’d faint dead away”), the wild veering across subjects, the metaphors left spattered on the road—is so entirely original that it seems to demand equally extreme interpretations. And so we have the Homer of soccer commentary and the Kevin Keegan of epic poetry hunched behind the same microphone.
What he’s usually praised for is his “enthusiasm,” and it’s true that there’s no denying it; his love for the game has a desperate, sighing quality that gives his excitability an unexpected poignancy (as he might say: He’s as jumpy as a kite in a lightning storm, but, Paolo and Francesca-like, he makes the wind passionate). What I like about him, though, isn’t his enthusiasm so much as a byproduct of his enthusiasm: his apparent determination to purge cliche from sports commentary. Whatever bizarre leaps he makes in the course of a game, he almost never retreats to the safe familiar phrases that make up the background hum of so many match broadcasts. He tries to find his own language to describe what he’s seen.
And because the game presses on him so urgently, he sets an impossible standard for himself—he once said that to do justice to his feeling he’d have to “invent a new language in English”—and uses all his resources to try to reach it, even if doing so occasionally makes him look foolish. (This is a tension that’s captured very well in the numerous blogs, some of them excellent, that are devoted to transcribing his sayings.) There’s a selflessness and an artistry to this that sometimes leads him to inspired descriptions (Barcelona as “dynamic, adroit, clever, waspish, cheeky and zippy”), and even when it lets him down (a random cry of “How do you like those potatoes!”) you suspect that, first, he has to be willing to risk a ridiculous statement in order to find a brilliant one, and second, in the renunciation of cliche the effort is sometimes as important as the result.
What I don’t like about him is that he dominates every match he covers, and frequently seems not to enhance the game so much as wage some titanic parallel struggle that doesn’t have all that much to do with it. You’re never just watching Sevilla-Valencia with match commentary; you’re watching Sevilla-Valencia with Ray Hudson falling like a xylophone hammer all over your consciousness. That can be a good morning in itself, but it can also feel like something you have to contend with, especially when you’re just looking for a transparent experience of an exciting game.
His manner, that is to say, is a distraction as often as an asset: that voice, like a school of sardines pouring through a sluice grate; that relentless flow of undifferentiated metaphor (does it really help to hear that a defender who was rooted to the spot was rooted there “ficus-tree-like”?); that nervous patter, like ceaselessly drumming fingers. There are times when you can love the mission but hate that it’s headquartered in your living room, and while there are many announcers I like much less than Ray Hudson, it sometimes happens that I would rather listen to any of them than to him, which is simply the cost of his style.
But lodging a tepid style complaint against Ray Hudson is like using a caterpillar to block a runaway stage coach, and I’m more or less glad that it is. As unhinged as he may be, as insufficient to his own ends, as imposing on his listeners, he’s still unique among soccer commentators, not merely for his distinctive approach but also in the sheer fact of being unique. The game needs more characters and crazed metaphors, not fewer, and I’ll gladly let Ray Hudson get on my nerves now and then in return for the one moment when he howls like King Lear and suddenly makes a sport I’ve watched a thousand times feel, unnervingly and hilariously, like something I’ve never seen.
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