For We Are Young and Free


It’s been a rather enjoyable summer, all things being considered. If you happen to be a Pom, (which I am) and enjoy your sport (which I do) you find yourself in one of those periods in your life on which you will look back in years to come and wonder how the hell it all happened.

Of the three main sports worth talking about, The British Lions won the Rugby, GB & Europe hold the Ryder Cup, and England won the ashes before Alastair Cook had time to dust off his lucky Bobby Tambling jockstrap. In other fields, a Scotsman holds the Wimbledon Title for the first time since the Reformation, our naturalised Brits keep running, jumping and cycling faster than other counties’ naturalised citizens and, as yet, seem more adept at avoiding awkward questions about pills and blood transfusions than their fellow competitors.

This is all very odd indeed.

I am of an era where the word British was always preceded by “Plucky”, “Gallant” or “Useless”. There was a clear world order of things : 1) The British invented a sport. 2) The British got bored of playing amongst themselves, so took the game to the colonies. 3) The colonies (and anyone else who happened to be passing) beat the British.

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A small boy asks for the autograph of the winner of the 1908 Reculver to Penge Bicycle Race.

And this was how it was since sport was invented. Americans held all the golf and the tennis titles (very occasionally helped by a German, Swede or Strine). The Aussies and W Indies were the best at cricket, New Zealanders won the Rugby. West German men dominated the football (mainly), East German Women triumphed at the swimming (manly) and everyone else won Olympic Gold at our expense (the exception being Moscow 1980 when no-one else turned up). 

Oh yes, of course, there were always exceptions which proved the rule. Occasionally you’d get a Daley Thompson or an Ian Botham who’d become world-beaters, but on the whole we were useless. Our coaches were useless, our stadia crap and all our sportsmen and athletes went to college in Florida because over there they had real grass and something called sunshine.

Leaving us with Torvill & Dean.

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Mr & Mrs Jagger of Dartford, Kent, thoroughly enjoying themselves at a cricket match at The Oval, London 1972. Australia won by 5 wickets. Again.

Somehow this all changed. Somewhere between Shane Gould and Rebecca Adlington, between Mal Meninga and Johnny Wilkinson, since Rod Laver and just before Jock McSour, the British began to win things. Some genius in Westminster had the brain wave of giving money to each individual sporting organisations in the country for coaches, equipment and facilities. Invest in the country’s youth and watch it flourish.

Bugger me it works !

Of course, not all sporting bodies in the country got with the program. Some, like the FA and Football Premiership, reasoned that if we could attract enough mercenary and racist show ponies to our leagues, pay them so much money that, at the first flash of an agent’s instep, they’d drop you for another club. Only by playing against and alongside these players will our own boys improve and therefore, so the argument goes, will the National side improve and become World Cup Winners.

How’s that working out for you ?

But putting soccer to one side (putting it to sleep would be more humane) it does seem like something has worked. Our South Africans bat longer, run faster and cycle further between ‘comfort breaks’ than their South Africans; Our golfers (men and women) regularly pop across the pond to nick their silverwear; the Spirit of Seb Coe is still in the ascendency (in all parts of the land apart from my house) as young men and women who have benefited from our own little version of the GDR approach, run jump and swim faster, higher and longer than anyone else (well more than they used to anyway).

Most gratifying, of course is that this:

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has become this:

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It’s not just money that has caused this turnaround in fortunes, it is of course the attitudes of the Powers at Be. It’s the sudden (!) realisation that sport is great for the young, the soul of youth, and the heart of a nation. Winning is not everything, but is great for the spirit, and allows people like Cameron and Blair to use words like Feel Good Factor, and to jump on that bandwagon, drenching themselves and their political parties in the sweat and toil of others. (The reader will please note that during an Ashes Series, of course, winning is everything— but you get my drift). If school headmasters since Tom Brown’s days realised the importance of sport, why did it take until 1990 for any British Government ?

So as a finale to my summer there could have been no better received call last night than that from an old pal of mine who announced that unfortunately he’d had some people let him down, and he was stuck with two seats for the first day of the Fifth Test at The Oval today. “Would you and the missus like to go?” he asked, hopefully.  Being a good friend, I couldn’t see the poor man left with extra seats to fill. I threw my spirally cap and monocle into the ring.

Therefore this morning like Mick and Bianca before us (though hopefully slightly better-attired) The Incumbent and I shall take our places in the OCS stand for the first day of what promises to be a five-day-long party. Being 3-0 up already it will seem very odd that there is nothing to play for. CORRECTION:  there often used to be nothing to play for by the time we reached the Oval, but because the Aussies had already won the series. The boot with the big toe poking through the hole is definitely on the other foot this morning.

I don’t expect it to be a packed house. I’m looking forward to many a Strine Whine of “Oh look, anyone want 8 spare tickets ?” as I emerge from the Oval tube this morning. Memories of the vast expanses of empty seats at the MCG and SGC from 2009 tell us that your Aussie doesn’t turn up to see a losing side. He’ll have to get use to it. We did for years.

The English have included in their squad 2 relative unknowns — presumably to give them experience of carrying drinks out to the middle. The Aussie, bless them, have included 8 unknowns in their side — although 7 of these have already played 4 tests this summer. The ACB are busy trawling the practice nets and academies of Papua New Guinea, searching for more leg spinners and opening bats before their government pours them back into the sea. Let’s all hope that works out for them (the ACB, that is, not the government: The Government can go fvck itself).

World cricket is poorer for a weak Australian team.

Albeit funnier.

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Mr Unreliable


I’d forgotten all about Clive James. Not completely, you understand, or even intentionally, but when you’ve not seen on heard of a person for a while, you tend to forget about them. A bit like Jimmy Carr and the tax man. And like Mr Carr I realise I have made a terrible mistake.

There was a time when you couldn’t turn on the TV in the UK without watching this bald, fat Australian wander around some far-flung corner of the globe, or lolling behind his desk while he introduced his next guest on his chat show.  Like most talented performers, TV companies have a tendency to over-expose them, to milk their cash cow til it collapses in exhaustion and apathy. I feel Clive suffered a similar fate. The public like a talent, but can whiff from 300 yards the smell of a tired idea and over-used performer.

So it’s sad to hear that he has announced that he’s losing his fight against leukaemia, with which he was diagnosed two-and-a-half years ago. That would explain his absence from our screen, after having dominated it for so long.

Take Michael MacIntyre plus Noel Edmonds. Add some talent and you’ll realise how often our Clive seemed to be on the box. But I liked him, as did millions of others, even if the easy-tv option of fronting shows about the world’s worst adverts was clearly below this man’s level.

But it was his writing which I remember made me laugh out loud, and I’m annoyed that I had forgotten this fact. I read James’s autobiographies and travel writings before I’d discovered Bill Bryson. His tales from his childhood in Australia are arse-splittingly funny, every bit as good as Bryson’s accounts of life in mid-west America, and I can pay him no greater compliment then that. When I read this stuff, I realised that I’d made so many wrong life-choices along the way, and if I could turn back the clock, I’d pick up a pen and start writing, and stop farting around with photographs.

Luckily, our friends at Wikipedia (that’s not the lot holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy) have collated some of Clive’s funnier quotes, some of which I list below. Re-reading these, I know now my next move. Cease wading though Antony Beevor‘s magnificent and enormous Second World War, and re-buy Unreliable Memoirs (from where all the following quotes are gleaned).

I’ve read enough books about the War, I haven’t laughed enough. Yet.

  • Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel.
  • Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick.
  • I was born in 1939. The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me.
  • My mother had naturally spiced the pudding with sixpences and threepenny bits, called zacs and trays respectively. Grandpa had collected one of these in the oesophagus. He gave a protracted, strangled gurgle which for a long time we all took to be the beginning of some anecdote.
  • I remember the shock of seeing Ray undressed. He looked as if he had a squirrel hanging there. I had an acorn.
  • Children in Australia are still named after movies and sporting events. You can tell roughly the year the swimming star Shane Gould was born. It was about the time Shanewas released. There was a famous case of a returned serviceman who named his son after all the campaigns he had been through in the Western Desert. The kid was called William Bardia Escarpment Qattara Depression Mersa Matruh Tobruk El Alamein Benghazi Tripoli Harris
  • Riding the crest, I diversified, exploiting a highly marketable capacity to fart at will… By mastering this skill I set myself on a par with those court jesters of old who could wow the monarch and all his retinue with a simultaneous leap, whistle and fart. Unable to extend my neo-Homeric story-telling activities from the playground to the classroom, I could nevertheless continue to hog the limelight by interpolating a gaseous running commentary while the teacher addressed himself to the blackboard.
  • The whole secret of raising a fart in class is to make it sound as if it is punctuating, or commenting upon, what the teacher is saying. Timing, not ripeness, is all. ‘And since x tends to y as c tends to d,’ Fred expounded, ‘then the differential of the increment of x squared must be… must be… come on, come on! What must it flaming be?’ Here was the chance to to give my version of what it must be. I armed one, opened the bomb bay, and let it go. Unfortunately, the results far exceeded the discreet limits I had intended. It sounded like a moose coughing.
  • As I begin this last paragraph, outside my window a misty afternoon drizzle gently but inexorably soaks the City of London. Down there in the street I can see umbrellas commiserating with each other. In Sydney Harbour, twelve thousand miles away and ten hours from now, the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has every right to call us back. All in, the whippy’s taken. Pulsing like a beacon through the days and nights, the birthplace of the fortunate sends out its invisible waves of recollection. It always has and it always will, until even the last of us come home.