The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson, Bloomsbury, London, 2010

 

I first came across Jacobson the writer at his launch of his 'Mighty Walzer', a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in 1950's Manchester with hard-bat table tennis as a constant backdrop to a young life emerging from the Jewish Diaspora of that city. I remember it as a cracking tale which definitely deserves a second reading and an accompanying review for this blog. At the launch of the book, in the basement of his then publishers, Random House, a number of table tennis tables were set up (that's where I came into things) so that the publishing agents could indulge themselves in copious quantise of free booze and a game or two of ping. I managed to get a game in against Jacobson but the result was somewhat academic given that he was three parts gone. Thanks to Jacobson novel, readers now have a window into the wonderful world of 1950's hard-bat ping pong that would otherwise, in this age of highly technologically designed equipment, be in grave danger of disappearing from the collective consciousness.

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The Great Game, The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

 

It's not what you think. 'The Great Game' here does not refer to the glorious English Premier League nor the Champions League nor FIFA's World Cup, nor any other activity that might generally fit under the universal sporting umbrella. No, here the term refers to that bloody game of sport between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia in the nineteenth century for control of Afghanistan, a battle that has now spanned three centuries and shows no sign of exhaustion. The motive for such warlike activity in the 19th century was principally to secure control of India, the jewel in the British Imperial crown. Today the motive might more accurately be described as securing strategic control of the vast mineral reserves in that area, though this has been cleverly obscured by much talk of a never-ending war on terror. 

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Marina Hyde takes off the gloves: Olympic Notes No 2

 

Praise be to the sporting gods. It is not only Matthew Syed and myself who have had a gut-full of Olympic hype. Marina Hyde writing in the back pages of The Guardian 26/08/10 gets right down to her bare knuckles and lays one fair and square on the nose of the IOC, while landing a sharp kick to the FIFA groin whiles she's at it. I send her my hearty congratulations. Just cast your eyes over her opening salvo to get a taste of what she has in store.

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Liverpool For Sale

It was Des Kelly in The Mail 9/8/10 who for me, came closest to hitting the proverbial nail on the head, with respect to prospective new owners for Liverpool FC.

 

In a blistering broadside of a heading, Get real, we sold our soul to Chinese ages ago, Kelly dismisses those who bemoan that another sporting jewel in the crown is up for sale to the highest foreign bidder. Kelly correctly argues that the sale of British sporting assets is already well advanced.

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Matt Syed; Cynic or Enlightened Realist? Olympic notes No1

Two years minus one day to go until the London Olympics and Simon Barnes is getting all misty-eyed in The Times 28/7/10. As he waxes lyrical about the Olympics and, their unique tension, their unique meaning, he tells us cynics to look elsewhere. I took his advice and turned to Matthew Syed's column in the sports pages. What a welcome relief. It is not cynicism that Syed was offering but hard nosed realism. And as the London Olympic clock ticks away and the hyperbole become ever more intense we will all be in desperate need of some down to earth realism. Here is a sample of what Barnes might regard as cynicism but which I regard as a much needed breath of fresh air. That entire official marketing bumph from Sebastian Coe was starting to suffocate me. 

 

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Gold for Somalia

When Mo Farah won gold at the European Championships yesterday it was far more than just another excellent athletics performance from the British athletics squad. To understand the importance of Farah's victory, one has to consider the place that the Somalian community currently occupy in the British socio-economic system  rock bottom. Even the much maligned Bangladeshi community, through sheer length of tenure, has a higher social standing in our so called multi-cultural, tolerant Britian.

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London Olympics

I learned today that were was exactly two years to go before the official start of the London Olympics so I rushed out to buy a selection of newspapers to see what they had to say. I was sorely disappointed. I scanned through copies of The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian and only the later attempted some serious journalism. The first two publications offered nothing but bland platitudes about medal hopes, organisational matters and legacy hopes. Both printed Seb Coe's vacuous 'Plan Your Games' speech without any corresponding editorial comment. It was left to The Guardian's Owen Gibson, one of Britain's most rigorous sports journalists, to dig a little deeper behind the headlines. Gibson has a proud record in this respect.

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Ping Heathrow

Day 1: It was Ibrahim's ninth birthday and what a birthday he was having. His flight to Saudi Arabia had been delayed for a whopping 12 hours but he was not to be defeated. When we located the table at Heathrow's Terminal 3 he was already in full flow. By the time we left three hours later, he was still playing and very much in control. That wasn't so surprising given that he was already fluent in three languages; English, French and Arabic. During those three hours we taught him some basic shots and he proved to be a quick learner. By the time we left him, feet, arms and brain were all moving more or less in coordination. But more than that, he proved to be a natural born organiser. Mimicking what he had seen us do with all the other passing participants, he took over the role as if it were the most natural thing in the world. His mother and sister were fairly phlegmatic about his performance as if they expected nothing less. I wish his flight could be delayed for a whole month because I'm certain it would have a massive impact at the Ping Heathrow table.

 

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How Did Sport Get So Big? Tim De Lisle, Intelligent Life, Summer 2010

In keeping with the title of this quarterly magazine, a cultural offshoot of the more well-known The Economist, Tim De Lisle has produced a highly intelligent essay on the new religion we commonly refer to as sport. De Lisle starts off by offering his readers a comparison between sporting coverage in 1966, the year of England's lone international football triumph, and 2010 when sport is ubiquitous and all-powerful. For a taste of the comparison of what corporate global sport has now become compared to the low key affair of the 1966 World Cup, De Lisle writes;

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Ping London-St Pancras Ping

The grand opening of Ping London took place in the equally grand location of the newly refurbished St Pancras station and what a great occasion it was. Jointly organised by Sport England, Sing London, the participatory arts organisation, and the often staid English Table Tennis Association, it was anything but a staid affair. All the great and the beautiful of the table tennis world were there including at least two former England champions. They did their usual showpiece performances which the non-ping part of the audience lapped up, but the real buzz of the evening was taking place away from the show courts, the VIP's and the cameras. The essence of Sing London is not about table tennis superstars but rather the ordinary punter on the street that might just fancy a casual game of ping on the way home from work. It was this real and tangible magical essence that was on display at St Pancras yesterday.

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Who Are We? Gary Younge, Viking, London 2010

During any sporting event, especially international ones and particularly the really big ones like World Cups and Olympic Games, the question of conflicting allegiances can come into play. This is particularly true for those who might be considered immigrants or somehow not quite native, though it can affect every citizen if their 'own' team is eliminated and they need to redistribute their allegiances. A recent and painful example would be for England fans whose glorious, all conquering team were quickly ejected from the proceedings in South Africa just a few painful weeks ago. Who then do they rally around, if anyone, and what would be their inner logic? For me, I was keen, even at times, passionate, for an African team to do well, and when Ghana started to play some great entertaining football I, along with a billion Africans and the equally huge African Diaspora, rallied around Africa's last World Cup hope. For the Africans or those of African heritage, that allegiance was obvious. But not so obvious for a white European. 

 

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World Cup Journalism No8

With the momentary pause in FIFA's never-ending football road-show, come the journalistic legacy predictions. And they can only ever be predictions at this stage because we are dealing with such intangibles like the national feel-good factor or the nation building bonus. Will the extravagant new infrastructure ever be fully used again? Probably not. Will the corporate world's new found love of all things African translate into renewed investment in Africa and a fairer World trade system? Only time will tell, but don't hold your breath. South Africa has extreme pockets of old colonial wealth and a seemingly intractable morass of colonial legacy problems that no one-off FIFA event can ever hope to touch and it would be totally naive to imagine otherwise.

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Ping London: The revolution begins.

 

In 1917, Lenin's Bolsheviks captured the Post Office, the railway station, the armaments depot, the Winter Palace and other strategic points. In no time at all St Petersburg was in the hands of the Reds with barely a drop of blood being spilt.

 

Ninety-three years later, Ping London is using a similar strategy. Key London institutions are, for four weeks over this summer, falling to the power of ping and an impatient army of table tennis enthusiasts of all ages and abilities. St Pancras Station, the O2 arena, Tate Modern, Westfield's, the British Library (once home to Karl Marx), Canary Wharf, Covent Garden and Heathrow Airport have all succumbed to the ping army. In fact 100 table tennis tables are being strategically placed across the capital for a whole month of people's ping and I am reliably informed that other British cities are soon to follow.

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Why England Lose

The title of this gem of a book is a little misleading. Only one pre-chapter specifically deals with the supposed English football sickness. The main substance of the book deals with sport in general and asks; what makes certain countries successful at sport?

The methodology of K&S is to number crunch. By using hard statistics and pumping them into a complex mathematical computer programme they claim to be able to see a definite pattern as to why some countries do better than others, including dear old England. According to this method, England perform as expected and at times do rather better than expected. The key criteria for measuring these things are size of population, wealth of country, experience in international sport and most crucially, proximity to the central core of expertise; in the case of football, that being Western Europe.

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World Cup Journalism No7

Post-mortems on Team England's early demise from the World Cup are a dime a dozen. Every TV pundit, newspaper sports writer and resident pub expert have got it summed up. Interestingly both the BBC and Channel 4 dragged in Matthew Syed, author or recently published, 'Bounce: How Champions Are Made', to try to offer their viewers some enlightenment, but all Syed could do was say how complex and unfathomable it all was, but could offer nothing that you hadn't already heard from your next door neighbour. And, in an act of great marketing astuteness, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski have got their analysis, 'Why England Lose' flying off the bookshelves. ( A full review to follow shortly) But it was two articles in the London Evening Standard that caught my attention, one by Jason Cowley, (Editor of the New Statesman) 28/6/10, the other by John Barnes, former England international, in the following day's edition.

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The End of Overeating- David Kessler, Penguin, London, 2010

I suppose Dr Kessler will be rather pleased with the timing of the NICE report which chimes perfectly with the contents of his latest text, 'The End of Overeating'. This is a clear an indictment of the food industry as you will find, and a clear scientific explanation as to the obesity time-bomb we are witnessing across the planet. In the face of powerful industry lobbying, governments have been profoundly weak in tackling the problem, but research such as Kessler's will make it ever harder for governments to look the other way. After hundreds of thousands of deaths at the hands of the big tobacco, governments were forced to act. Sooner, rather than later, the food industry will need to be brought to heal, possibly by the threat of class action style litigation.

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