This is a much-needed voice in grief memoirs. Rio Ferdinand is, by his own description, a very cold fish, or he was until his wife died. That she didn’t get to see the more open, warmer man that he has become is only one of the regrets with which he contends.
I was wrong to think that this book would simply be a written version of the documentary featuring Rio, broadcast earlier this year. It was an excellent programme but there is so much more here and in a bumper year for books on grief, this one manages to give a fresh and necessary take on the subject.
The book gives an unsentimental look at how generations of hardship created a family culture of closed down emotions. There are insights into the world of top-level sport, which show how athletes and men in most male-dominated areas of life are pressured into being self-centred, self-contained, highly critical and competitive. Rio is equally frank about how his memory has played tricks on him, about his less helpful coping strategies, and of his resistance to trying any bereavement support, which he only backed down on for the sake of his children.
Despite most of us not coming close to being a world-class footballer or living that kind of lifestyle, this is an immensely relatable book. I saw aspects of myself, of most men I’ve known and of many women too.
I listened to the audio version and was puzzling over how someone can both tell us that he is inarticulate and then go on to show us how that aversion to expression actually feels from the inside. The stories of men who don’t like to say much, generally do not get told in their own words. Looking at the paper copy for clues, the author credits show Rio “with” Decca Aitkenhead. Excellent choice Mr Ferdinand. Her bereavement memoir, All At Sea, though quite different to this book, shares the qualities of being a deeply intelligent introspection that can still move you to tears many times over and is structured and paced well enough to make it hard to put down.
People who are not into football might walk past this book. They shouldn’t. It deserves to be on lists of Books of the Year and a bit like Jeff Brazier’s book this summer, it should really be read long before the reader finds themselves widowed. If that’s not possible, the next best time to read it is now.
First published in Widows and Widowers magazine Issue 17