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Brian Burland: The Sailor and the Fox

This is probably Burland’s best-known novel though, like his other novels, it is currently out of print. It was inspired by the 1959 Theatre Boycott. It was nearly made into a Hollywood film, starring Sean Connery but it never happened. It is a relatively short novel, going through a full boxing match, with the match seen from the perspective of the two fighters, but mixed in with their own stories, the reason for the fight and other relevant details.

Boxing, like other entertainment, had been segregated in Bermuda till then, both as regards fighters and spectators. Buddy Noyes decides to hold a championship fight between a black and white boxer. The Mid-Ocean Heavyweight champion was Phineas Fox, like all holders of that title a black man. Noyes decides to have him fight Sam Saltus, a white man, known as Sailor. Fox is twenty seven, a gifted fighter and a man very proud of his good looks. As we learn through the book, he boxes partially to win the girls, at which he is very successful. Saltus is forty-nine but Noyes pretends that he is forty. He is the undefeated Royal Navy champion and has no desire to come out of retirement. He takes the view that he is past it and he does not want to become one of those boxers who carry on fighting even when they are well past their prime. Saltus lives with his mother. She had had a hard life, having had an arm amputated when she was sixteen and ended up with a husband who was both a drunk and philanderer. He has now died of cirrhosis of the liver and Saltus and his mother live together peacefully. However, when she is diagnosed with breast cancer, she is told that she can be operated but it will cost US$5000. Neither she nor her son has that kind of money. However, the prize for the boxing match is $7500 so Saltus agrees to fight. Noyes particularly wanted him, as he is undefeated and clearly the best white boxer around, despite his advanced age.

The novel opens with the start of the fight but, as we follow the views of the boxers on the fight, we learn more about them. Saltus had joined the British navy when young. He had refused the opportunity to be an officer as he hated limey officers, as he said. When he was young, he was something like Phineas Fox, having a reputation on the US Eastern seaboard as being available for lonely American women. But now he takes it easy, works as a gardener and lives with his mother. We learn about Fox’s life, in particular about his current girlfriend, Penelope, a rich white woman. During the match, the dynamics change, when a rich American offers $25,000 to the loser.

The match is bloody and brutal – Burland spares us no details – and both trainers consider throwing in the towel. Even one of the promoters wants to stop it but Noyes refuses. Burland seems to know all the tactics and tricks and we learn how the boxers do it. Obviously, to extend the story, the match goes down to the wire, as each man takes brutal punishment and each man is now on top and now the underdog. Burland keeps us guessing all the way but his skill is in showing both the match as it progresses as well as the background to the two boxers and what led them to where they are. It is a pity that it is not better known and a pity that it is out of print.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Eyre Methuen
Availability: Out of print