Page 10, 16th August 1996

16th August 1996
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Page 10, 16th August 1996 — This sporting life
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Locations: Rome, Oxford

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This sporting life

BY DESMOND ALBROW

FOR ME IT WAS rather like seeing Hutton or Boycott hitting a six off the first over of the first ball of a Test match against the Australians at Lord's. In short, it looked incongruous, almost unseemly. Yet there it stood for all to sec: a book review by Roy Jenkins, not a study of Keynes or the history of claret, but of lion Bradman.

What on earth did the intellectual and hedonistic Lord Jenkins know about cricket and the Australian genius in the floppy green cap who used to clock up centuries as lesser men clocked up debts? Well, the answer is quite a bit. Roy Jenkins proved that he knows that silly mid-on is a seriods position on the cricket field and though by no means a proficient player of the game understands it all in theory. Tory cynics might say that the same thing applies to his politics but that would hardly be cricket.

Even if Roy Jenkins is happier with a croquet mallet in his hands rather than a cricket bat we should always applaud public figures and writers who do not write off sport as a medium for morons.

I feel particularly strongly about this because I grew up to feel guilty about liking sport and to consider it essentially bad for your intellectual health. From 1936 to 1943 I was at a Northern Catholic school (Motto: Om et Labora) where sport was not discouraged, but treated more as a method of keeping boys out of mischief and away from occasions of sin, than of producing a Cardus or a Compton.

Sport fell neither into the Ora or Labora category whereas Scouting (the headmaster-priest was a devoted Scout) was much nearer to God as a pastime. But I, quite irrationally, considered Baden Powell a clownish figure in his silly shorts and nobbly knees. In summer my heroes were cricketers, in winter soccer and rugby players. I also played most sports with modest competence, but work and pray was the motto not work, pray and play.

Yet what a trick those priests and schoolmasters missed. They taught me much about that great English convert to the faith, Cardinal Manning.

I learned how he had gained a First at Oxford before coming over to Rome, the vital role that he had played in the First Vatican Council of 1870, his influence generally on the life of the English Catholic. Nobody, however,told me that in his young days he had actually played cricket at Lord's, the only member of the English Catholic Hierarchy ever to do so. A Cardinal cricketer, no less. Now that was a fact that had I known it at school would have strengthened my faith more than all the sermons in the school's chapel.

At wartime Oxford, where Left-wing politics were all the rage, supercilious dons and clever undergraduates were never slow to sneer at sporting prowess. Gone were the days when CB Fry took a Double First and obtained a Triple Blue. If you enjoyed Auden, Isherwood and Spender then sport was a nogo area for discussion. The cricket bat or rugger ball was the equivalent of Cyril Connolly's pram in the hall, an enemy of intellectual promise.

EVEN THOSE who found the brilliance of Evelyn Waugh more to their political and social taste found little for their comfort in his novels.

Because of this early experience of mine I have always taken pleasure in finding that men who largely live or lived by their brains and sensitivity take their own pleasure from either watching or taking part in the disciplined exercise of brawn. Take Lord Longford, for instance.

Not even his political opponents would accuse him of aggression. He stands rightly in the public mind as an advocate of decency, humility and tolerance.

But one of my spies tells me that Longford in his youth was a tough and forceful rugger forward. I cannot vouch for the truth of this, but there is no question about Lord Longford's attending rugby internationals and appreciating the finer points of the game.

For years I did Ken Tynan, the brilliant if at time jejune theatre critic, an injustice. It was in 1948 when we were both undergraduates and I

saw him, in his plumcoloured suit corning out of the Parks at Oxford where the University was playing one of the Counties.

He was accompanied, as usual, by numerous histrionic and loud-mouthed cronies. I assumed that he had been in the Parks to sneer at the cricket. It was many years later that I learned that Tynan was, in fact, a cricket-lover and a promising bowler in his school days.

The theatre and the arts have often supplied sportsmen. Today we have Harold Pinter, the cricketing playwright, and Allan Massie, a perceptive and erudite critic who can write with knowledge of both rugger and cricket. Poetry and cricket are hardly strange bedfellows as Francis Thompson and Philip Larkin proved: we still have Alan Ross.

Fortunately the Catholic Church in England has usually avoided the worst forms of muscular Christianity, but sporting types in the modem days since Manning have not been absent from Archbishop's House, Westminster.

After all, Cardinal Heenan had once been a rugger threequarter (known as "Twinkletoes") and Cardinal Hume a squash player and art expert rugby coach of boys at Ampleforth.

Even in Rome we have a Pope who was no duffer on the ski slopes and who played soccer as a goal-keeper in his youth. A Pope between the Posts. How prescient was his choice of position on the soccer field. A goal-keeper can see all the play and is the last line of defence when danger threatens a position that can be enormously strengthened by a whiff of infallibility.




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