Saturday, 30 August 2008

Beware of Greeks Bearing Medals

I blame the Ancient Greeks who invented competition. If only they had thought of something useful like television the world would not be in the mess it is in now and we would be able to afford drugs that prolong life rather than waste money demonstrating that one man can windsurf longer than the next. Heracles invented the Olympic Games to celebrate having mucked out a stable. When I mucked out my good horse Skipper Jack I used to go for a pint. I wish Heracles had.

Rather in the way that most sports are played in shorts and the ultimate accolade is a school cap, there is a sense of repressed childhood in the excessive use of fireworks in Olympic opening ceremonies; and the prominence given to playing with fire and lighting a bonfire has small boy connotations. Indeed the whole occasion seems to be modelled on a school sports day in a recently co-educational establishment.

I do see the Greeks had time on their hands and wanted to avoid the Agora, in the way the fastidious amongst us avoid Hyde Park Corner. No peace there with that infernal nuisance Socrates and his team of market researchers forever asking perfect strangers questions about the nature of love and other private matters. There was also their unfortunate sexual orientation that urged them to ogle naked men. The sin that in our day, whatever Wilde said, dares to shout its name.

But surely there must have been some Athenian equivalent to that dreadful Trinnie and Susanna who are currently persuading light-headed ladies to expose their anuses on TV?

Parenthetically, I am tired of watching TV adverts for constipated, incontinent ladies who have uncomfortable motions; and I don’t see why a naked backside should be used to advertise tooth paste. I preferred it when women were a mystery. I think they do themselves a grave disservice by admitting they are all bowel bound Dorian Grays until they put on anti-wrinkle paste.

I might add that there is something flaky about a government that tells us competition on the sports field is bad for children and then lavishes largesse on some luckless soul so that they can learn to jump further than anyone else. And does the gold Olympic medal remind anyone else of those tacky medallions which proved that Jim could fix it?

My ancestors were knighted for fighting. Difficult to imagine Sir Elton John or Gielgud fulfilling that criterion.

In my youth the champion cyclist was a very charismatic young man, Reg Harris. He was an amateur who used to train on a cinder track at Fallowfield, a suburb of Manchester, and finance himself with a cycle shop and by endorsing cycles.

There were amateurs like Sydney Wooderson, the four minute miler and the greatest athlete of the day who missed the 1938 Empire Games in Sydney because he was taking his solicitor's exams and could not afford time for two long boat journeys. There was no question which occasion was the most important and, indeed, the most useful to society. Men like that could live fulfilled lives and push the boundaries of sport. Why should billions be spent on the dubious pleasure of pedaling faster, windsurfing, horse riding and spear throwing, proficiency at which latter art has limited potential in an age of guided missiles?

Odd too, is it not, that we limit the number of activities in which it is respectable to excel? We laugh at the idea that in the Twenties we competed in endurance ballroom dancing, pie eating and spotting Lobby Ludd on Blackpool Pier. Are they inherently any sillier than pole vaulting?

We can compete in shooting contests but we must train for the event abroad because shooting is illegal in this country. Can we look forward to dog fighting, bear baiting and cock mains in the enlightened future? Are these activities more cruel than coarse fishing, in which the fish is caught by sticking a hook in its mouth, imprisoned in a state of terror in a keepnet and then released traumatized with a ripped jaw.

Before anyone tells me that these are more humane times, I must point out that banning those cruel sports had nothing to do with humanitarian impulses. The legislation was brought in to prevent the gathering of crowds at a time of great civic unrest.

With a bit of luck I will be dead b y the time of the next Olympics so I won’t have to squirm with embarrassment at the Opening Ceremony when Britain, the country of Kathleen Jenkins, Bryn Terfel, Aled Jones, Sarah Brightman, Lesley Garret, a clutch of world renowned actors, even the bath-chair Beatles; some of the finest orchestras, choirs and military bands and the greatest composers, is represented by a rock singer, a failed England soccer captain and a geriatric guitarist.

Why not a pipe band, a Welsh choir, a Lancashire brass band; a last night at the Proms? Pity about the fox hunting laws. Nothing finer or more English than a parade of foxhounds, bloodhounds and beagles. Though a Concourse d’elegance of British vintage cars and horse drawn carriages, with sporting heroes riding shotgun, would be worth watching.

Or a representation of the Thames with Royal Barges, Handel’s Fireworks Music and appropriate bangers and sparklers? After all, the Mayor of London does descend from George 11, which is all I have against him, apart from his ghastly father.

My own favourite would be the public immolation of Paxman and Wark, with fried.Fry as a extra.


There are raincoats and there is the Burberry, a particular make of raincoat which kept the name of its first maker because Edward VII never asked a servant to bring a raincoat; he always specified his “Burberry”. Perhaps when the dreadful dawn of denim is past and students once again wear clothes, a thesis might be written answering the puzzling question why so many of our clothes – Wellingtons, Raglans and Cardigans – are named after generals. But that is another matter. For the moment I should like to sing the praise of the Burberry, which costs the equivalent of a small mortgage but drapes the wearer in the mantle of romance.

The only time I regretted giving up smoking was when I turned up the collar of my Burberry and, in an instant, became Humphrey Bogart, or better yet Anton Walbrook. Who? Anton Walbrook. And kindly tell me who let those young people in on my blog? I believe it is impossible to have reached maturity and not know that film star who only ever played one role. Whatever the storyline, Walbrook ignored it. He only ever played his improbably accented, deeply romantic self and he was always clad in a spiritual Burberry with the collar turned up and, drifting from the corner of his mouth, a trickle of cigarette smoke which you knew without being told came from a Balkan Sobranie, and almost certainly a BLACK Balkan Sobranie at that.

It is impossible to conjure up Walbrook on the wide screen of memory without him appearing in a Burberry. Unless it be a silk dressing gown. Walbrook only ever took off his Burberry to replace it with a silk dressing gown, which he wore for putting a record of “Dangerous Moonlight” on the gramophone. Dangerous what? Would those young people kindly leave the blog. I cannot talk sensibly to anyone who has never heard of that peerless melody. In my day it had an effect on the Long Haired Bandits surpassed only by a small gin slipped surreptitiously into a glass of cider.

I digress. Even Small Stout Persons of Advancing Years feel dashing, romantic - even, regrettably, foreign – in a Burberry with the collar turned up. Especially when worn with a brown trilby over a navy pinstriped suit. And a silver-grey tie. In such an outfit it is difficult not to sound your ‘w’ s as ‘v’ s and behave in every way like an Austrian aristocrat of reduced means.

As a sartorial corrective, I recommend replacing the Burberry with the plus two or knickerbocker. Nothing can be more British. They are as comforting as Bread and Butter Pudding.

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