Sunday, September 07, 2008

Play Up, Play Up

And all the world over, each nation’s the same
They’ve simply no notion of playing the game
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won
And they practice beforehand which ruins the fun!
Flanders and Swann

If you were to ask 117 people what most summed up the English character, 43 of them would reply "sportsmanship". (SOURCE: Department of Made-up Statistics.) As ideals go, it's not a bad one. When we play games, we try really, really hard to win: but if we lose, we don't mind too much. Or at any rate, we pretend we don't.

We use expressions like "be a good sport", "it's not cricket" and "play the game" without thinking about them; we take it for granted that the ideals of sportsmanship apply to other walks off life. Indeed, the main reason we value sport is that it promotes sportsmanship. I spotted this as a very young child: there wasn't much point in egg-and-spoon races, but grown ups liked them because they illustrated the timeless precept: "For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against you name / He marks - not that you won or lost / But how you played the game." [*]

The idea is burned very deep into our psyche. When King John I of France surrendered to the Black Prince at Poitiers, Edward took him back to his tent, served him tea, and said: "Hard luck, old chap! Actually, I thought you fought far better than I did and deserved to win, but that's the way it goes sometimes." [**] When Winston Churchill said that we should be resolute in war but magnanimous in victory he was basically saying that we should good be sports and not boo the losing side, even when they're Nazis. Our own dear Tony's problem with the execution of Saddam Hussein wasn't so much that they killed a helpless prisoner in cold blood, but that they were insufficiently sportsmanlike about it. It may be that as running people through with lances became a less and less important accomplishment for members of the House of Lords, the ideal of chivalry on the battlefield mutated into that of sportsmanship on the rugby field. Or it may be that chivalry was only ever the application of sportsmanship to mass slaughter.

Now, Mr. Polly Tishon is currently much concerned with the question of what makes the English English, particularly because we are irrevocably committed to running a hugely expensive egg-and-spoon race in London in four year time. It would be very easy to mock our contribution to the close of the recent blow-out in Peking, so that's what I propose to do. England is the country that gave the world, off the top of my head, William Shakespeare, the Bible [Check this], Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the language that most of it speaks, albeit not very well. So when it comes to putting together what is, I grant you, only meant to be an oversized carnival float, all we can think of to crow about is "our capital has a public transport system, and it rains a lot." I mean, couldn't we at least have rubbed Johnny Chinaman's face in the fact that his system of government was invented in the reading room of the British Museum? By a German, I grant you, but the fact that we let him live here was pretty sporting of us.

One understands the problem. We can't talk about English literature (too high brow), English history (too much whopping of European allies), English classical music (too white ), English traditional music (Rowan Atkinson once made a joke about it), the Empire (too much slavery, although I can't help thinking that one or two other things must have been going on as well) or the Church of England (too religious). So you are pretty much stuck with that fairy tale England that only exists in American movies and The Beano: that part of London which Londoners can't find, but which consists of Westminster Abbey, the Tower, Big Ben, London Buses and Union Jack underpants.

But you might possibly have thought that the "sportsmanship" thing would have occurred to someone. Particularly as the Olympics are all about, you know, sport.

Before the hymn the Skipper would announce
The latest names of those who'd lost their lives
For King and Country and the Dragon School.
Sometimes his gruff old voice was full of tears
When a particular favourite had been killed.
Then we would hear the nickname of the boy,
‘Pongo' or ‘Podge', and how he'd played 3Q
For Oxford and, if only he had lived,
He might have played for England - which he did
But in a grimmer game against the Hun.
John Betjemen

One thing that does occur to Polly Tishon with some regularity is that people who couldn't tell you date of St. George's Day and think that Gandalf commanded the English Fleet against the Armada genuinely do show signs of getting excited when England score more tries than France at cricket, or when the Scottish rugby team get New Zealand out for a duck at Wimbledon. Aha! They say. We may not read Shakespeare or go to church any more, but here's something which all the English – in fact, all the British - have in common. Sport. It doesn't stand up for five minutes. The English only get really enthusiastic about cricket when they win - something which doesn't happen all that often. They are are quite indifferent to Welsh success at rugby, and indeed, to rugby. The Welsh will cheer for the Dominican Republic or Tonga if they stand a chance of beating England at anything. And, as that nice Mr. Tebbit reminded us all those years ago, it's entirely possibly to hang a Union Jack outside your corner shop, have three children in the Royal Navy and a picture of the Queen over the fireplace and still want Pakistan to win the Test Match.

You might think that Gordon Brown would be more sensitive than most people to the principle that winning and losing don't matter nearly so much as taking part. But he has only become an enthusiastic proponent of the great Olympic sport of bandwagon jumping because "Team GB" won a lot of red ribbons at the big Chinese sports day. It's only when we win at something that we're told that sport is what should make us proud to be English. (When the Scottish win at something, it means we should be proud to British. Obviously.) But nothing could be less British or English than caring whether or not we win.


"Gordon Brown vowed to bring back competitive sport in school today, saying it had been wrong to discourage children from competing against each other."

Jolly good show!

" 'We want to encourage competitive sports in school, not the medals for all culture we have seen in previous years...It was wrong because it doesn't work.' "

Spiffing! Or "hoots mon!" for that matter.

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, our heroine watches a strange game called "the caucus race" in which a number of creatures run around aimlessly for several minutes, until the Dodo calls a halt. The Dodo then announces that "Everybody won, so all must have prizes." In 1998, cuddly Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips used All Must Have Prizes as the title of her book about how schools weren't as good as wot they were in the olden days. The title presumably referred to the perception that it is increasingly difficult to fail exams, and possibly to the sense that the system was a chaotic mess with no clear rules. It didn't specifically refer to sport. Brown seems to have half remembered the quote, and used it as portmanteau phrase to stand in for an argument about what is good or bad about the teaching of P.E . "Everybody won, so all must have prizes"; All Must Have Prizes; "the medals for all culture."[***]

What evidence is there for the existence of an "all must have medals" dragon that St. Gordon must slay? When I happen to pass schools whose playing fields have not yet had branches of Tescos built on them, it has certainly appeared that young people are playing footy on them. Glancing at the websites of educational establishments in the Bristol area I note that that Cotham School offers Year 10 boys (fhat's fifth formers, in old money) options including rugby, soccer, volleyball, softball and basketball, as well as more outre pursuits such as climbing and "ufrisbee". Bedminster Down mentions that Master Bobby Medjedoub and Master Rhys Hickery both acquitted themselves admirably in the soccer match against Ashton Park, which is particular impressive since the latter's site boasts of having "five netball courts, a basketball court and extensive pitches for football, rugby, hockey, cricket and an athletics track".

It is, I suppose, within the realms of possibility that the same infant school that mandated the singing of Baa-Baa Green Sheep and the consumption of Halal Hot Cross Buns replaced its egg-and-spoon race, which one kid wins and ten loose, with an obstacle course or a treasure hunt, which everyone can have a go at. I must admit that, speaking as one who was always last at everything, this doesn't strike me as a necessarily terrible idea. If you are teaching kids how to throw javelins – a very useful skill in the event that Bedminster Down is invaded by Spartans – it makes good sense to say "Try to throw the pointy stick further than you did last week," rather than "Try to throw the pointy stick further than the furthest pointy stick thrower in the class." But I submit that the idea that basketball, netball, touch rugby, association football and egg-and-spoon races have disappeared from schools and needs to be brought back by ministerial fiat is a total fantasy. Either Gordon Brown knows that it is a fantasy, in which case he is a liar; or else he doesn't, in which case he is a fool.

People occasionally ask me why I think it matters that newspapers like the Daily Express and the Daily Mail write about an imaginary version of the United Kingdom which has no connection to anything which is happenng on Planet Earth. This is why.

Mr Brown - the same Mr Brown who want more children to dress up as soldiers and play with guns - also wants to encourage them to hit each other.

"Defending the decision to include contact sports such as boxing and martial arts in the list of activities that will be available to children, Brown said: 'I have met quite a lot of amateur boxers. At one of the clubs I said to one of the young guys' "

- oh, please, Gordon, you are better than this; if you start down the path of saying "guy" because some media consultant thinks it sounds kewl then six weeks from now you'll be saying "look, y'know","dudes" and "innit", only it won't matter because David Cameron will be doing press calls with President McCain and you'll be working on your very bitter memoirs -

" ' one of the young guys there who I'd been told had been in some trouble in the past: "Tell me what's the most important thing you've learned here." His answer was "Discipline." ' "

If you want to be good at something, you need to give some attention to it, spend some time on it, turn up to practice even on the days when you don't feel like it. Almost certainly this is all Guy meant when he said that boxing had taught him discipline. If you are giving your attention to one thing – hitting a punch bag; throwing pointy sticks; putting Spider-Man comics into acid-free bags; painting 25 millimetre lead models of hobbits - you are less likely to be doing some other thing - getting into trouble, for example. Any fool can see what follows from this: if we want to keep kids out of trouble, then we give them time and space to to do things which they are interested in, whether that happens to be tiddlywinks or full contact boxing. But in politician-speak, "discipline" means "doing what you are told". Hearing that one young man has learned "discpline" from being repeatedly hit very hard in the face Brown draws the general conclusion that more young people need to be given the opportunity to be hit in the face more often. When he finds someone doing something they love for the sheer love of doing it, Gordon asks "what is it for? what use is it?". Learn boxing, not because it's a noble, civilized pursuit but for some other reason.

"He gave the example of Shaneze Reade, the British BMX champion..."

You see: C.S Lewis was right; "riding your bike round the playground" now counts as sport.

" 'She was not happy to settle for a silver. She went full throttle...'" me minister, but I'm not sure if a BMX bike has a throttle....

" '...for gold. I think that's the spirit we want to encourage in our schools.' "

And there you have it. Dividing people into winners and losers. No prizes for second place. It's not the taking part, it's the coming first that counts. Only sing when you're winning. Just slip on the wet floor, did you? Last one back to the changing room gets the slipper. Now that is English.

What the Olympic Closing Ceremony Ought To Have Looked Like

* I had always assumed that this was specifically written for the 'wayside pulpit', perhaps by the same fellow who pertetrated the one about life being mostly froth and bubble. It transpires that it is part of a very much longer and more dreadful poem, full of stanzas at the level of: "Bill tried to punt out of the rut, but ere he turned the trick / Right Tackle Competition scuttled through and blocked the kick / And when he tackled at Success in one long, vicious prod / The Fullback Disappointment steered his features in the sod" and "But one day, when across the Field of Fame the goal seemed dim / The wise old coach, Experience, came up and spoke to him./"Oh Boy," he said, "the main point now before you win your bout /Is keep on bucking Failure till you've worn the piker out!" The "Scorer" isn't, as I'd always thought, sedately marking off the overs in a little book for a village cricket match. He's updating the scoreboard for a game football.

** "In my opinion, you have good cause to be cheerful, although the battle did not go in your favour, for today you have the highest renown of a warrior, excelling the best of your knights. I do not say this to flatter you, for everyone one our side, having seen how each man fought, unanimously agrees with this and awards you the palm and the crown, if you would consent to wear them." -- Froissart's "Chronicles."

*** Lewis Carrol takes the trouble to include a strange game that it is impossible to lose in his surreal dream vision. In a textually problematic essay called "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" another well known Oxford Lewis complains that "modern" school shave made it impossible for children to fail: if a child is too stupid or lazy to do Latin or Algebra, teachers simply invent something that he is capable of doing and pretend that it's a proper subject. Lewis is referring to Melanie Phillips' beloved Secondary Moderns, not the hated Comprehensive Schools (the widespread implementation of which didn't start until two years after C.S Lewis died.) Could it possibly be that old fogeys have always thought that schools "nowadays" have made it impossible for kids to fail?


John said...

OK, that's it. I'm officially renouncing my American citizenship so I can move to the UK and vote for you for prime minister. Do you need me to bring you anything? Some fried chicken? A gun?

Anonymous said...

From the same side of the pond, though not nearly so amusingly, I have a question: What is textually problematic about the Lewis piece? I'm curious to know more.

But yes, Andrew for PM sounds like a fine idea.

Unknown said...

Please enlighten me: who are the group in the clip? I feel my wallet trembling with imminent explosive decompression.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Show of Hands". (I thought the magic of You Tube revealed this at the end of clip.)

NickPheas said...

Actually I think when the Spartans invade the chap that lobs the pointy stick further than anyone else isn't all that useful either. Really we should be training all the kids to throw the same distance. That way them Spartans will get a load all at the same time instead of ones and twos at all ranges.

We could probably invent a sport from it as well. Some kind of javelin version of bowls.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the by, although textually Lewis was referring to English education, his foreword to the American edition indicates that he was actually talking about U.S. education in that essay.

The relevant passage: "So far so good. But I had to face a tactical difficulty. The 'Toast' was published in an American magazine. The tendency in education which I was deploring has gone further in America than anywhere else. If I had been writing 'straight' my article would have been an attack on the 'public schools' of America. It would indeed have raised nothing that educated Americans do not fully admit. But it is one thing for them to say these things of their own country and another to hear them said by a foreigner! I therefore thought it neither good manners nor good tactics to make my point quite nakedly. Instead, I resorted to a further level of irony. Screwtape in fact describes American education; he affects to be holding English education up as the awful example. The most intelligent of my American readers would, I hoped, see the game I was playing and enjoy the joke. And if those who were a little duller really believed that 'democratic' education (in the true sense) had gone even further in England, they could not help seeing that their actual system was at least uncomfortably like the one Screwtape describes—and draw the moral."

So, no, Lewis was not referring to secondary moderns particularly. He was referring to a trend in U.S. education which began in the late '40s/early '50s and was eventually slavishly copied by the U.K., principally after his death.

Andrew Rilstone said...

That's the textual difficulty. Watch this space.

Andrew Stevens said...

I await breathlessly. Screwtape says, "It begins to work itself into their educational system. How far its operations there have gone at the present moment, I would not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments." So Lewis seems to have seen himself as a prophet in that whole text rather than a critic. Was there an earlier edition with different phrasing where Lewis was clearly critiquing contemporary English education and which he later retracted and substituted this version or something?