Le Tour d’Essex

touressex

In the global league of immense sporting events, the Tour de France is third to the Olympics and the World Cup, or so the Essex Chronicle says. So how can a narrow lane in this corner of Essex between Chelmsford and Ongar, intensely rural though hardly thirty miles from London, accommodate the event? More »

At Wimbledon

I’ve been to Wimbledon twice this week. On Monday, I turned up at 8 a.m. and took my place in line for a ticket for the following day. Since each day’s order of play is only announced the previous evening, this was the one way I could be certain of seeing Roger Federer. There were 100 or so tents ahead of me, which meant I was definitely among the first 500, giving me a choice of any court. (When Andy Murray is playing, two nights’ camping is required.) I pitched my tent and spent most of the next 14 hours lounging around outside my tent or, when it was raining, inside it. I was occasionally tempted to sneak off, but a plummy-voiced steward told me that absences of more than an hour were likely to result in expulsion. More »

Andy Coulson and Other Henchmen

Just how nasty are politicians expected to be? Maybe they need to look nastier than they really are, because the demos demands that they hang tough. Even so, voters baulk at politicians who go home and dismember effigies of opponents or torture kittens; indeed the public, at least as ventriloquised by the press, demands politicos not succumb to such common moral foibles as fibbing, graft and the wedlock-bucking hump. As the two demands clash, modern politicians find themselves flip-flopping between machismo and piety – which explains why, taken in the round, they often present as characterless vacuums. Thatcher’s and Blair’s premierships managed to strike both poses at once, in a tic that degenerated into self-caricature. More »

France v. Germany

Any World Cup match-up between Germany and France is an opportunity to exorcise the demons of 1982, when the two countries (if you treat Germany and West Germany as the same country) met in a semi-final that remains one of the most traumatic matches in World Cup history. Certainly, it traumatised me. Most people remember it for the horrific foul committed by the German keeper, Harald Schumacher, who jumped knees-first into the onrushing French forward Patrick Battiston, knocking out his teeth, breaking his ribs and leaving him unconscious. What made it worse was that no foul was actually given. After the match, Schumacher’s lack of contrition stoked anti-German feeling in France to the point that Schmidt and Mitterrand had to issue a joint statement to calm tensions. But at the time – that is, as the game was unfolding – it didn’t seem so bad. Football was still a contact sport back then, and these things happened. The horror was what came later. More »

At Bannockburn

‘How can a field sell out?’ the man from Edinburgh wanted to know, helping his wife out of a cream Land Rover. They’d driven over for Bannockburn Live, only to hear there might not be tickets available after all. You should expect crowds any time you pay £7 to park on a farm, but the sea of anoraks was a genuine surprise. For months the Scottish press had been rubbishing the event, drooling at the prospect of an SNP-backed disaster, but there were huge lines to get in. ‘It’s all this anti-independence thing,’ Land Rover man muttered, sniffing conspiracy in the drizzle. More »

About a Ball

brazucaThe star of this World Cup is called Brazuca. Who’s he? It’s the ball. It got its name in a poll of Brazilians in 2012: according to FIFA they chose it because the word ‘captures national pride in the Brazilian way of life’ (the second choice was the Bossa Nova, which would have been overegging it a little). The ball was designed by Adidas with the aim of avoiding the flaws of its predecessor, the Jabulani, whose erratic performance marred the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Football designers often have a not-so-secret agenda to build something that will lead to more goals. The Jabulani was smooth and light, in the expectation that it would fly into the net. Unfortunately its aerodynamic features, combined with the high altitude at many South African grounds, meant it was more likely to fly away. The players didn’t trust their ability to control it over long distances, which contributed to the general ugliness of a tetchy, finickety tournament. Too many games ended up being played at close quarters. More »

A Tale of Two Cities

Down and out in Paris and London? At least make sure you’ve got plenty to read. This summer you can take out a year’s joint subscription to the Paris Review and London Review of Books. Subscribe to both magazines together here.

In Thimphu

Bhutan rock

A map of Bhutan, painted in the colours of the national flag, on a rock beside a path to a monastery.

At the Junction bookshop in Thimphu the manager is reading Sartre’s Age of Reason. ‘I’ve been trying to get hold of Nausea for months,’ she says, ‘but the Indian distributors won’t send it up.’ On a stand in the centre of the shop there are glossy photo books: cute, scruffy waifs; austere Himalayan panoramas; a coffee-table celebration of carved wooden phalluses (the Bhutanese strain of Buddhism employs phallic symbolism with zeal). These are the books laid out for souvenir shoppers. On the shelves, there’s a section dedicated to Ancient Greek drama, another to 19th-century Russian novelists (all in English translation). There’s a volume of Elizabeth Bishop, and some Freud. She has sold her last copy of Infinite Jest but still has a copy of The Pale King. More »

Teething Troubles

On the subject of the Suárez bite, the World Cup pundits (David Runciman aside) were in agreement for once: ‘He’s sick’; ‘He’s obviously got a problem’; ‘He needs to get help.’ But in a kind of casual-wear version of ‘political correctness gone mad’ not a single one of them mentioned what’s staring us all in the face – the Suárez overbite. No one thought to mention those outrageously present teeth. But isn’t it possible that the back story is right here, hidden in plain sight? It’s not hard to imagine him receiving real grief for those teeth in his earliest years: children can be devastatingly cruel. If Suárez goes into analysis now, what chance his therapist will discover that on some deep unconscious level football was but a detour to his real goal – the revenge of those outsize teeth? That lurking somewhere in the backyard soul of Luis Alberto Suárez Díaz is still a hurt and resentful little boy? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ always struck me as one of the more misconceived bits of popular wisdom. Broken bones are nothing, a detail, a cinch to mend. But cruel and blithely repeated nicknames can haunt the soul for decades. A kiss on the wrist when he scores; a bite out of the old, jeering world when it stands in his way. More »

Continental Home Advantage

People with a passing interest in football often ask two questions about the World Cup. When will an African team win it? When will the United States win it? Both good questions. It’s long been clear that some of the world’s most talented footballers come from Africa and they often emerge in clusters from particular places (Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast). But as yet this hasn’t translated into any world-beating teams. In the US the appeal of soccer has been on the rise for a while now, leading to the suspicion that when the Americans put their mind to it they could translate their enormous global clout into on-field dominance. But again, it hasn’t happened yet. More »

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