6 / suppose you'll he enjoying the next few weeks on television," said someone who comes in to help in the house. I soon found out that she was talking about Wimbledon and the Ashes. I groaned: if there is anything that could make the television schedules bleaker than ever, it is wall-towall sport. (I no longer watch Neighbours, having deserted it in favour of Cmssroads; but, if I did, I should be very miffed to find that it was suspended for a whole fortnight for Wimbledon.) There is no sport in which I can manage to summon up any interest. I think this is connected with the fact that the one thing that made my childhood a misery was compulsory organised games.
with an indulgent father and a doting mother and a well-kept garden to play in; I attended a little local school, Miss James's (High School for Girls, Preparatory for Boys, it said unblushingly in its prospectus) and, though we played on a court marked out for netball, I cannot remember ever being required to play any sort of game.
For the next eight years. though, it was compulsory games every day except Sunday; four years of soccer for two terms and cricket for one — and, to my horrified 21st century recollection, compulsory boxing; then four years of rugger for one term, hockey for another, and cricket for a third, with opportunities for tennis, golf, squash, fives, and fencing. Both schools were run on the presumption that there is nothing that boys enjoy more than kicking a ball about in mud or throwing a hard ball at one another. I was the exception to that rule.
Lovely afternoons, when one might have been doing something enjoyable, like reading a book, or exploring the countryside, were instead given over to mud and fear and pain and boredom. Like every non-sportsman, I remember with shame how, when ad hoc games were proposed, we would all gather together in a huddle and two captains would choose their teams alternately, and I was always the last, or the penultimate, to be chosen. No wonder; for I was sure to let the side down by fumbling a ball or missing a catch or funking a tackle.
Forlorn attempts were made to interest me in sport. My kind father, who loved cricket, would take me with him on cherished visits to Lords; the only thing that interested me was a dark little printingshop where score-cards, ever up-to-date, were produced on ancient hand-presses; "1 wish Brian would even pretend to enjoy himself," he sighed to my tutor. A kind neighbour took me to rugger at Twickenham; I did not find there even a printing press to interest me. I was delighted when I found that quotation from Kipling about "muddied oafs and flannelled fools"; why should I now sit and watch people doing, voluntarily, what 1 so hated doing? Isuppose it would be curmudgeonly to deny other people the coverage that means so much to them but offers so little to us bad sports. One part of the problem is my inability (as I call it) to master the rules of the games. Of course, I know, from bitter experience, the rules of soccer and rugger and cricket; I am not a likely victim for those spoof explanations of the game —"when you're all out you come in, and the other side go out and are in until they're all out ..." and so on -though I confess that I cannot understand the finer points of cricket scoring that set all the spectators applauding at unexpected moments during the game, when some player had broken some particular record that they all know about and I do not.
Lawn tennis is a a dead loss to me: although I can get the general idea of what they are trying to do. I can never perceive why they fail to do it, and why they keep stopping the game; and the whole system of scoring, with games, and sets, and points, is a closed book to me. It is not for want of trying: in my parish there were several elderly ladies for whom life was suspended during Wimbledon fortnight, who tried most earnestly to indoctrinate me — "It's
perfectly simple, Father" — but failed miserably. I have never actually played the game; social life in the suburb where I was brought up centred on the tennis club; and later we had a garden with a hard court in it, somewhat decayed during the war, and while I was away fighting for king and country my father had it dug up and replaced by a lawn.
My parents were great cinema-goers, so I spent hours of my childhood sitting through B-pictures, which often seemed to be about baseball. or American football, or basketball, the rules of which were never explained, and which I almost find it hard to distinguish one from another. But the silly, nationalistic side of me is secretly pleased at the failure of the American games to conquer the world — unlike Coca-Cola — while English contributions to sport are so widely accepted: soccer throughout the world, cricket through most of the old Empire, and rugger in a select few.
Like anybody else I can get excited when some British (preferably English) team or individual player is on their way to the top; I was elated by Ttm Henman's progress, and saddened by his defeat. But I cannot enter into or even
understand the fanatical devotion to particular teams, often not even local, and nowadays often not even containing any local players.
Standing where I do, I get particularly irritated (and cynical) about the soccer populism that is so fashionable just now: every politician, and every bishop (including dear, saintly Cardinal Hume with Newcastle United) is expected to be a keen supporter of this or that team. I suppose I must allow that some of their devotion may be genuine and unaffected; but it leaves me cold. In a word, it makes me sick as a parrot.