We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Don’t you know there’s a war on?

The British Army might be involved in a desperate struggle in northern France but that doesn’t mean that life should come to a standstill at home:

The Times, 14 September 1914 p2

The Times, 14 September 1914 p2

I jest, the Football Association has asked for guidance. This is what the Army Council had to say:

The question whether the playing of matches should be entirely stopped is more a matter for the discretion of the Association, but the Council quite realise the difficulties involved in taking such an extreme step, and they would deprecate anything being done which does not appear to be called for by the present situation.

One of the problems – a problem that will haunt the British Army until 1917 – is that it is a small army with a small supply industry. There simply is no great stockpile of uniforms, weapons and ammunition and no easy way of producing more. Sure, the Army may have recrutied 100,000 men (or is it 500,000?) by this stage of the war but there’s precious little they can do with them. So football might as well continue, as indeed it did until the end of the season in 1915.

Why the English should celebrate the fact that England are rubbish at football

Last night Germany won the World Cup beating Argentina 1-0 in the final. They deserved to. They had consistently played the best football and done so in the right spirit.

It also marked the twelfth tournament in a row that Germany had outperformed England. That is right, Germany has done better than England in every single World Cup since 1966 (and they still argue about that one.)

In fact, if anything, this rather disguises how bad England’s performance has been. In the 48 years since England won the World Cup – in 1966 in case you didn’t know – they have not made a single final and only one semi-final. In the meantime Germany have appeared in five finals, and Brazil, Holland, Italy and Argentina four apiece. When it comes to semi-finals such giants as Uruguay, Portugal, Bulgaria, Belgium, Croatia, Sweden and South Korea have all made an appearance more recently than England.

This apparent underperformance is mirrored in the European Championship. In that tournament’s 54-year history England has managed a grand total of two semi-finals. They lost both times. In the same time Czechoslovakia, Denmark, the USSR and Greece have all been winners; Belgium, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Yugoslavia have all been finalists.

Is it the players? Emphatically, no. England has always been able to produce a reasonable crop. Between 2002 and 2010 that crop was exceptional and included the likes of Beckham, Gerrard, Rooney, Owen, Cole, Terry and Ferdinand. And the results were still risible. To see how risible one needs only to look at the England-Germany game in 2010. England had by far the better team – to the extent that not one German player would have got into the England team. The result (should you need any reminding) was 4-1 to Germany. And, no, England were not unlucky losers.

Why do England lose? In their book entitled, er, Why England Lose, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski attempted to answer this question. Their answer was that based on England’s population, actually, England do more or less as they are supposed to. I have always found this rather hard to take. You would expect that if it were true at some point England would have an over-performance to go with all the under-performances. But no. We have to look elsewhere.

The best explanation I have seen came from the unlikely source of the very same Michael Owen I mentioned earlier. His argument is that England play as individuals and English players are simply unwilling (and possibly unable) to play as a team.

The superiority of German football culture over ours can be summed up as an obligation to always put the greater good over any individual needs, a philosophy that applies not only within the 11 players on the pitch but across every level of their game.

This may well also explain why English managers are so bad. English managers are brought up in England’s individualistic culture and subconsciously apply its rules. Result: rubbish on the pitch.

And that’s a good thing. Our sporting ineptitude is a symbol of our love of freedom and is something to be cherished. In future we should take pride in every stray pass, long ball, defensive mix-up and lack-lustre performance. It shows that we alone amongst the footballing nations honouring freedom, liberty and the individual above all other things, are prepared to let the single, solitary individual have his say, do his own thing and show the world what he can do: to try, to fail, to try again, to dare to be different.

Except that it doesn’t. It does not explain why America (also highly individualistic by all accounts) has the better international side (ditto, arguably, Australia) or why English club teams have such a good record in European competitions.

Oh well, back to the drawing board. Silly game anyway.

Where do they get these people?

Let me get this straight. The World Cup is being held in Brazil. Prior to this tournament there was a ban on consumption of alcohol inside stadia in Brazil, but FIFA insisted that the ban be overturned because one of their sponsors is a brand of beer and their contractual relationship with the brewer of this beer required that it be on sale inside the stadia during the World Cup. Fans at these matches have apparently been buying this beer and getting unbelievably drunk. The impressive cogitative processes operating in the brains of senior FIFA officials are now just starting to deduce that there might have been a reason for this ban in the first place.

Soon, Russia is authoritarian and corrupt. Also, it is hot in Qatar in summer.

Sport and hard cash

Money buys success in football and several clubs now have more money than United. From 1997 through 2004, United topped the consultancy Deloitte’s “rich list” of European football clubs ranked by revenues. In 2012-13, United dropped out of the top three for the first time since Deloitte began compiling the list. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich now have higher revenues. Moreover, Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have oil-rich owners who pump money in rather than sucking it out. By the logic of the market that means there are six clubs in Europe more likely to win the Champions League than United. In the domestic league, by the same logic, the club’s natural position is now third behind Chelsea and Manchester City. (Less wealthy Liverpool will probably win this season’s Premier League, but their overachievement is probably unique in recent English history.) United’s biggest problem isn’t David Moyes. It’s money.

- Simon Kuper, writing about the sacking by Manchester United today of David Moyes, manager since last July. Kuper, who writes in the Financial Times, has also co-authored a study examining the linkages and correlations between success on the field and money in the bank. Short summary: the link is very strong but not totally bomb-proof. (In other words, if you support a relative minnow as I do, you can still live in hope.)

Up the yids!

Charges dropped against Spurs fans’ Yid chants, reports the Tottenham and Wood Green Journal.

About bloody time. The charges were more than usually malicious and absurd. The usual level of malice and absurdity is to pretend that certain syllables – called “racial insults” among the illuminati – are magic spells infused with the irresistible power to turn any mortal that hears them into a raging savage. It was the rare achievement of these charges to be crazier, nastier and more insulting to the intelligence and decency of ordinary people even than that.

As reported by the Jewish Chronicle, although by shamefully few of the other reports of the case, the men charged had said “Yid” not as an insult but as a way to cheer on their own team. All three men are Tottenham Hotspur supporters. They may be Jews themselves; I could not find a source that stated whether any of them are or not, but given that they are Spurs fans it could well be the case. I found an interesting article in Der Spiegel (no need to say the obvious) that gave a brief but clear explanation of this phenomenon:

Tottenham Hotspur’s Jewish background is similar to the Ajax [a Dutch football team] story. The north London club was popular among Jewish immigrants who settled in the East End in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The Spurs were more glamorous back then than the closer West Ham United or Arsenal,” says Anthony Clavane, a Jewish journalist with the tabloid Daily Mirror who published a book in August about how Jews have influenced the history of English football. Additionally, other northern London districts, such as Barnet, Hackney and Harrow, have traditionally been home to many Jews, which has also contributed to the Hotspur image.

So, for historical reasons the Tottenham Hotspur home stands sing of their own as the Yids, the Yiddos, or the Yid Army. For this it was proposed to put three men in jail. From the Jewish Chronicle link above,

Their arrests followed widespread debate late last year, after the Football Association issued guidelines in September announcing that fans chanting the word “Yid” could be liable to criminal prosecution.

The move caused anger among Spurs fans, who refer to themselves as the “Yid army” as well as the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust, which stressed that “when used in a footballing context by Tottenham supporters, there is no intent or desire to offend any member of the Jewish community” .

Following the example set by everyone from the Desert Rats to Niggaz Wit Attitude they have taken what was once an insult and turned it into a badge of honour. Tasteless? Possibly. Knowing nothing of the history of a Jewish link to Tottenham Hotspur FC, I recall once being shocked to see a blackboard outside a pub advertising a forthcoming match to be televised there as a contest between the “Yids” and whatever team were to oppose them. I mumbled an attempt at protest to a barmaid who had stepped outside for a fag. She didn’t know what I was talking about – in retrospect I’m not sure she even understood that “Yids” had any other meaning than a nickname for THFC – and I slunk off in embarrassment. One could certainly argue that it it is a poor memorial to the persecution and mass murder suffered by Jews over the centuries to make an insult used against them into a means to excite collective euphoria among people watching a game. But if you really want to contemplate great barbarities memorialised in plastic, turn your eyes to the attempts of the Crown Prosecution Service to charge Gary Whybrow, Sam Parsons, and Peter Ditchman with racial abuse, and smear them as anti-semites, for asserting the Jewish identity of their own team.

An amusing little factoid.

The least dangerous sport at the Winter Olympics is Biathlon. This is also the only sport at those games that involves the use of firearms.

(HT to the Australian Liberal Democrats for noticing this).

The Sochi Olympics and the future

We are now a week into the Sochi Winter Olympics. The opening ceremony was spectacular, apparently. (I stuck to my regular custom of watching nothing of Olympics opening ceremonies except for the march past of athletes from countries with names starting with the letter I). Many events have apparently gone smoothly, especially the indoor ice events taking place in the city of Sochi itself. There have been a couple of minor issues with individual sporting cultures coming up against strict Olympic rules – for instance the alcohol ban inside venues is said to be “against the spirit of curling”

At the other end of the outrageously expensively constructed road and outrageously expensively constructed railway to the outrageously expensively constructed resort of Krasnaya Polyana in the Greater Caucasus mountains, I am not sure that the snow events are going quite so well. Some of the downhill skiing looks a little slushy to me. Cross Country skiers have at timesbeen competing in T-shirts and shorts in temperatures of around 15 degrees Celsius, I am told. Ski runs in such hastily constructed places are seldom as good as in the most famous resorts of the Alps or the Nordic countries or Canada, and one senses a certain discontent. One can’t tell from the vapid commentary of the BBC coverage – and I suspect the vapid TV coverage in most other countries. Sports journalists and TV networks are too close to the organisers and too close to the sportsmen and too close to the IOC and wish to retain access to all these people and organisations in future to do much but gloss over these things, on the whole.

The odd piece of discontent is being reported. The Australian media is being rather franker than it would be if talking about, say, cricket. (This might have to do with Australia not being much of a winter sports power, and so having less to lose). Combine this with the interesting culture of the sport of snowboarding – arguments at previous Olympics about whether a ban on cannabis use was against the spirit of snowboarding do appear to have been resolved under the table in favour of the snowboarders – and we have found out the snowboarding halfpipe course is “f—king retarded”.

So it is probably fair to say that a huge amount of money has been spent on these games, the money has been filtered through a very corrupt Russian political and economic system and through the IOC, and venues that are good for the ice events and sort of okay for the snow events have been constructed, with the minor problem that it isn’t actually very cold in Sochi in February being a bit of a problem, as predicted.

What does this mean for the future of the winter Olympics?

The 2018 Winter Olympics are in Pyeongchang county in South Korea. Assuming that North Korea does not collapse or try to start a war between now and then, this will be straightforward, as these things go. A vast amount of money has been spent building new world class ski resorts at Alpensia and Yongpyong. These have largely been built already. They were built in anticipation of Pyeongchang winning the Winter Olympics. Pyeongchang also made unsuccessful bids for the games of 2006 and 2010, and has therefore been building for some time. There are already large financial black holes from the construction of these venues, but one cost overruns will be anywhere near as bad as have come from the highly corrupt race to get things built on time that took place prior to Sochi. Plus there have been and will be time for lots of test events to get the venues right. Of course, there are still highly expensive new highways and railways to be built, and a lot of indoor venues to be built for the ice events in the coastal city of Gangneung. As national pride is at stake, South Korean taxpayers will undoubtedly suffer painfully, but South Korea is a rich industrial democracy with competent people in charge. These games will likely go smoothly, but they will cost a lot – just not as much as Sochi.

The venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics has not yet been decided, but the IOC announced last year there were six final bidders: Stockholm (Åre), Sweden; Oslo, Norway; Krakow, Poland (Zakopane, Poland and Jasná, Slovakia); Almaty, Kazakhstan; Lviv, Ukraine; and Beijing (Zhangjiakou), China. [It has always been the case that the indoor ice events would be held in a city and the outdoor snow events in a mountain resort. In recent times the need for the city to be close to the resort has been relaxed somewhat, and I have listed the mountain resort(s) in brackets if it is a long way away from the official host city].

Sweden has already withdrawn their bid, and Norway appears to be close to doing so. The reason: they are seeing the immense expense and horrible shenanigans going on in Sochi. A little secret of the Olympics is that many of the the same people run it every time – the host city largely just picks up the bill. Once the event has ridiculous expenses and large amounts of outright corruption attached to it, this all comes with it to the next venue. Receiving kickbacks on construction projects becomes what it is all about.

Relatively uncorrupt places like Norway and Sweden look at this, and find that they want nothing to do with it. As great centres of winter sport, they have many of the right facilities already, meaning less scope for construction industry kickbacks. This means that for some of the IOC the fact that a country is already prepared for the Games is actually a negative rather than a positive.

Anyway, though, the point is that the two countries best able to host the games end up not being serious candidates.

As for the others: Poland and Slovakia would run the games just fine, but a fair bit of infrastructure and facilities would need to be built. Krakow is a lovely city. Zakopane is a lovely resort, and the Tata mountains are a suitable place for the games, even if the best downhill resorts are on the Slovakian side rather than the Polish side. (Some of the infrastructure construction would not be too counterproductive: Poland built lots of new roads, railways stations and airport terminals before the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, most of which were needed anyway and were part of Poland’s long term post-communist infrastructure modernisation). The Olympic games are not what money should be spent on in the present economic circumstances, though, and one also hopes that the richer countries of the EU are past paying for the Olympics to be held in the poorer countries of the EU (see Athens 2004). But with the EU, who knows?

So the others:

Lviv, Ukraine is far too poor and backwards a place to consider even before the present political turmoil in Ukraine. This is not going to happen.

Almaty, Kazakhstan is a hyper, oil money kind of place. The Olypics there Would be over the top and hilarious, and spending levels would be outrageous. This could be the IOC’s kind of thing, actually. As a positive, the Kazakh winter really is very cold, and the mountains around Almaty are spectacular. So in that way, this would be a good venue.

Then there is Beijing, China. Another Olympic games there would be all about prickly Chinese nationalism again. The Chinese would spend whatever is necessary to pull it off. Lots of clearing of poor people off the streets would occur before the games. Both of Japan and Korea have hosted the games before, which is always likely to get the Chinese riled up. An Olympics here might well happen. One does wonder about the outdoor snow events, though. China does not appear to have any culture of these kinds of sports whatsoever, and a mountain resort at Zhangjiakou would be a spectacular Olympic venue carved out of nothing that would likely become one of the great Olympic ruins in very little time at all, rather like the venues of the summer games of 2008. The Chinese have been doing well in the speed skating and figure skating events in Sochi, though,

My hunch is that the games will be given to Beijing, or perhaps Almaty. Helpfully, or not, the Russian government has endorsed the Chinese bid. Hopefully the Poles will have the good sense to simply get out of the way.

There is risk, though, in giving the games to cities and countries with dubious records on human rights and fragile politics far away from the homes of the sports in question. One day, one of these choices will go badly wrong, and the obvious countries to hold these Games may be so pissed off with the IOC that they me no longer be willing or interested in hosting.

If Beijing or Almaty does get the games, by 2026 it will be a long time since the Winter Olympics will have been held at any of the great skiing resorts of Europe or North America. This is a shame, really, as until recently the winter games has to some extent avoided the excesses of the summer games. Here was an event in which Norway was a superpower, and the sports were all fundamentally ridiculous, even by the standards of other sports. We may miss that.

Playing cricket is not like national service any more. Good.

Sometimes with journalists, the pressure to write a column, and extract some broader, or deeper meaning, from an event can lead the writer into places where, to be kind about it, does not work to their advantage. Let’s take the case of Peter Oborne, who writes about the recent melancholy state of the English cricket team (it was hammered 5-nil in the recent Ashes tour of Australia). One of the consequences of this has been the sacking of the England coach, and now, it seems, the dismissal of one of its most recognisable players, Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen, or KP as he is known, is one of a long line of players who were not actually born in the UK (he was born in South Africa) but, by various routes, got himself eligible to play for the English national side. (His mother was or is British, as far as I know).

KP is known for being both a flamboyant striker of a ball, a great run-getter, but also someone who is not, in some eyes, a perfect “team player”. Words like “selfish”, “maverick” and “egoistic” get thrown around a bit. (As a libertarian, none of these terms strike me as particularly bad, but they are usually thought of as terrible in polite society.)

Oborne muses about all this, and he has some credibility in writing about cricket. A few years ago, he produced a book about Basil D’oliveira, who played for England, was a non-white, and who, hence, had problems in trying to play in South Africa. His story is one of how sport and apartheid endured a particularly torrid relationship. So, in general, you’d think that Oborne would be above writing nationalistic, ugly stuff about sports and games. Well, what to make of this:

The early history of Test cricket runs parallel with the fall of empires and the rise of the modern nation state. Test matches started in the 19th century, the great age of nationalism. Sir Don Bradman, the greatest cricketer who ever lived, was the symbol of Australian self-assertion against the mother country.

Quite possibly. Although  let’s not overdo it.

Sir Frank Worrell, the first permanent black captain of the West Indies, was a vital figure in the liberation movement that spread through the Caribbean in the post-war era. According to the historian Ramachundra Guha, “one can read the coming into being of the nation of Pakistan” through study of the life of the nation’s first Test captain, Abdul Hafeez Kardar. All of these great men saw cricket partly as a sport, but more importantly as a way of serving their country. Cricket as a means of making money did not come into it. For many of them it was also a system of ethics.

Maybe true, although “serving ones country” is not what playing a ball game is about for me. My terrible “selfish individualism”, I suppose.

At the heart of the game was a highly developed concept of fair play. Players were expected not to cheat – for instance to “walk” if they were out. The authority of the umpire was respected. It was axiomatic that the individual should subordinate himself and his talents to the team.

A golden age, truly it was.

This set of propositions was linked to a powerful vision of the social order. It was assumed that men and women of exceptional gifts would devote lives of service to their community rather than further their own interests. It was recognised that extraordinary talents came by the grace of God and were not a mark of individual virtue.

Your life is not your own. You must serve the Collective. Your talents aren’t yours – they belong to the Collective. Okay, our Peter’s just really warming up now. There’s more:

The underpinnings of this vision have weakened. Religion, with its essential teaching about the unimportance of self, is no longer the force it was. In economic terms, cricket at the top level has ceased to be a form of national service. It should be viewed as another branch of the global entertainment business, dependent for revenues on giant TV conglomerates such as Subhash Chandra’s Zee corporation and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Cricket was a form of national service. Ah, so it was like being made to wear a military uniform, being sent off to strange lands to kill people when you’d rather do all that selfish individualist, money-grubbing, Sun-reading stuff instead. It is now about evil entertainment, not the misery of standing in a hot field. Murdoch, corporations…….

Sir Frank Worrell, AH Kardar, Don Bradman and England’s Colin Cowdrey were all manifestations of the mid-20th-century nation state, and all the social and moral obligations that went with it. Kevin Pietersen is just as surely a manifestation of the unqualified victory of neo-liberal market economics over the past two or three decades. Neo-liberals have little time for social institutions, are contemptuous of national borders, and dogmatically advocate the free movements of capital and people. They regard community, place and nation as worthless superstitions. Above all, they place the individual first.

If you believe in liberty as many “neo” liberals are, then by definition, it is about the freedoms of individuals. That doesn’t mean that people cannot and do not voluntarily associate and create clubs, with rules and standards, and sometimes fall out with people whom they don’t like, such as KP. It not the case that liberals don’t understand or respect institutions so long as those institutions operate by consent and don’t use coercive force.

In so far as Kevin Pietersen has any nationality, he seems to be South African. He was born and bred in South Africa, speaks with a South African accent and made his first-class debut for a South African team. He emerged as a cricketer in the most wonderful moment in South African history, when apartheid had gone and the country was building a multi-racial national team. Pietersen wanted no part in this new world. He got out as soon as he could, claiming that the positive discrimination necessary to help black cricketers stood in his way. Lack of loyalty has been his hallmark in English cricket. He moved first to the county of Nottinghamshire, then Hampshire, now Surrey. In the England team he seems to have been the repeated cause of division and bitterness. Eighteen months ago, Pietersen shared a century partnership with James Taylor, a 22-year-old debutant, at Leeds. At the end of the session Pietersen walked off the field with the South African players, leaving Taylor on his own. It later emerged that Pietersen was sending text messages to his South African opponents. In these he is said to have mocked the England captain, Andrew Strauss. Strauss, and not Pietersen, quit in the wake of that episode – a black day for English cricket.

A right wanker, then. Should have stayed at home.

I would argue, therefore, that there are important lessons to be learnt from the Pietersen debacle. We can acknowledge that open borders and free movement of capital – the key conceptions of neo-liberalism – have brought great prosperity and a certain vitality to Britain over the past quarter century. There is no mainstream political party that would like to risk scaring away Goldman Sachs or Ford Motors.

Scaring away foreign investors? I dunno, maybe it might be a good thing to give up all that ghastly consumerism.

But the wealth brought by international capital can be intensely damaging. It drives up values of houses so that ordinary, hard-working people can be priced out of the market. The impact of globalisation, especially through immigration, can make some British citizens feel that they are living in communities that no longer belong to them in a political system that no longer listens to them.

Make your mind up Mr Oborne. So free trade/movement etc brings prosperity, but it also “intensely damaging”. All those foreigners with their funny accents and so on buying “our” homes. This is classic “fixed wealth fallacy” in action (there seems no awareness on his part that that argument might logically lead for calls for, say, a quarter of the UK population to be deported or killed so as to cut house prices).

What does it mean to be British? Who makes our laws? Who, indeed, do we want playing for our national sports teams? These are all very difficult and dangerous questions. Like most people, I am not confident about the answer. As someone who has followed and loved the England cricket team for nearly 50 years, one judgment is easy. The England selectors made exactly the right decision in dumping Pietersen for repeated selfishness and disloyalty this week.

Well, as far as Mr Oborne seems to be concerned, he doesn’t want anyone playing for England who hasn’t been born here, which I guess would have ruled out many a previous England player. They were clearly mercenaries, “neo-liberals” who failed to understand that playing a game of cricket should be seen in the same terms as, say, joining the Brigade of Guards.

These are all very” difficult and dangerous” questions. Oddly, by the logic of Mr Oborne’s argument, the hero of his book would not have been allowed to don an England cap or shirt, since, well, just how “British” was he?

A top coach argues that bureaucracy and centralisation have hurt US tennis

 

“When it comes to development programs, what we are really talking about is creating an environment within which gifted players have the best opportunity to flourish. When identifying these environments, the evidence consistently points to a committed, passionate coach teaching, guiding and mentoring a gifted player to a successful pro career. How, then, do we best ensure that such relationships are given the best opportunity to thrive in the future? First, it’s imperative to understand that tennis is a highly individualistic sport. Aside from a shared ability to win, the only thing that many of the great champions had in common was that they had virtually nothing in common. Nothing better illustrates this fact than the contrasting styles and personalities of some of the game’s great rivalries, like McEnroe and Borg, Evert and Navratilova, Sampras and Agassi, and Federer and Nadal. Incidentally, it’s a useful exercise to look at who the primary coaching influences were in the development of these players (John McEnroe – Tony Palafox and Harry Hopman, Chris Evert – her father, Martina Navratilova – Billie Jean King and I also understand that Tony Roche had an influence, Pete Sampras – Peter Fischer, Andre Agassi – his father and Nick Bollettieri, Roger Federer – Peter Carter, Rafael Nadal – Toni Nadal). Second, like players, coaches also have their own unique methods and personalities. The best ones are independent thinkers who wouldn’t survive for a second in a regimented environment, where they would be expected to ignore their own knowledge and conform to the dictates of a “one size fits all” approach. Can you imagine Wayne Bryan, Nick Bollettieri and Toni Nadal working within the confines of a stifling bureaucracy? With such a diverse range of players and coaches out there, it’s essential that players and their parents are free to determine for themselves who is the best coach. Any wider program or system must take this into account.”

Chris Lewis, who, by the way, is a big Ayn Rand fan. (Thanks to the SOLO Passion website for the pointer to the article).

 

The World in 1913 – Part V: This and that

What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, II, III, IV & VI.

In 1913, Britain has an empire. A very big empire. It’s pretty peaceful, doesn’t appear to be very expensive and doesn’t appear to be very controversial. The problem is that the British have no idea what to do with it. It is, let’s face it a pretty disparate and far flung bunch of territories. About the only thing that connects them is that Britain got to them before anyone else. In 1906, the Unionists went into the general election proposing an Empire-wide common external tariff otherwise known as Imperial Preference. Given that this would have put up the price of food and given that that’s what about 50% of average incomes were spent on it is not surprising that the Liberals won by a landslide. What is surprising is that the Unionists refuse to ditch it.

There are proposals to build a Channel Tunnel. Given that it didn’t get built until 80 years later, using much better technology and at great cost, you would have thought the main concern would have been over its feasibility. But no. The main concern, or at least the one occupying the minds of the Times and its correspondents, is how an invader might use it. Could an invader take both ends? Could it be blown up? What if they put the entrance on a viaduct and blew that up? Those are the sort of questions being asked.

Some controversies and concerns will seem odd to us. A lot of space is given over to agriculture, Welsh disestablishment and the teaching of Greek.

One of the big hullabaloos is over the Olympics. Britain did not do very well in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics only coming third in the medal table. This has caused a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth not least from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who feels that Britain risks losing her reputation as the “Mother of Sport”. He believes there are only three options for dealing with this catastrophe: accept the humiliation, withdraw from the Olympics entirely or create a subscription-based fund to pay for the recruitment and training of future Olympic champions. Cue letters to the Times arguing that we should withdraw as quickly as possible as the Olympics already represent a ridiculous perversion of the amateur principle.

At no point has anyone suggested that they should be using taxpayers’ money.

The sun has got its hat on – so let’s forget about football (soccer) for a while yet

Allan Massie has it absolutely right:

The national obsession with football will be back in the autumn. This is as certain as the fading of summer. If only our footballers could capture something of Joe Root’s delight in what he is doing. Football long ago styled itself “the beautiful game”, but too often it is mean and ugly. I have always hoped that the famous Liverpool manager Bill Shankly had his tongue in his cheek when he observed that “some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it’s much more serious than that”; but too many people speak and act as if it were true. It’s nonsense, of course. The truth about sport is that it’s deadly serious, and ultimately not serious at all. I don’t suppose Joe Root would put it quite like that. Cricket is his business, after all, not an agreeable hobby. Yet he plays as if unconsciously he recognises this truth, and this is one reason he offers such delight. It will be a sad day if that happy smile, which also displays his relish for battle, fades from his face.

Like the author and professional cricketer Ed Smith, I think that sport is a part of life and therefore a worthy subject in what it tells us about the state of our culture. It is perhaps a shame that it takes a smiling, cheerful chap such as Root to remind us that playing games should be fun. Fun? How frightfully old-fashioned.

I am a football fan, but even I am quite happy to stop tormenting myself on Saturday afternoons when Ipswich Town is playing. There is a long autumn/winter/spring to come when that can happen. In the meantime, the Ashes cricket season continues.

On the uncertainty of sport

The Ashes, for the benefit of cricket infidels, is the name given to the more than a century long cricketing rivalry between England and Australia. Whoever won the last series has them. And today, an Ashes Marathon begins, in the form of no less than ten five day international cricket matches between England and Australia in the space of less than a year. In order to get the Ashes to stop clashing with the Cricket World Cup, or something, there will be a five match Ashes series here in England, and then straight after that another five match Ashes series in Australia.

England now have the Ashes and all the smart talk says that on paper they are by far the stronger side, and will still have the Ashes in a year’s time.

But sport is not played on paper. I remember as a child being utterly bewildered when Australia defeated, by the sickening margin of four games to nothing, an England cricket touring team containing batsmen May, Cowdrey, Graveney and Dexter, and (get this) bowlers Tyson, Trueman, Statham, Laker and Lock. To many Samizdata readers, those names will only be names, but believe me, those are names. You want paper? The paper they wrote that team on was paper all right. Yet England, on the actual pitches, were hammered. (Also hammered rather too much off the pitches, from what I have since read.) I learned the lesson good and early that with sport, you never know.

Consider that final British Lions v Australia rugby union game, last Saturday (highlights here – don’t click if you don’t want noise). Michael Jennings and I and a couple of mates watched it in a pub in Southwark, with me getting there about fifteen seconds before the kick-off, which was just as well because the Lions, having scored no tries at all in the previous game, scored their first try of this game in hardly more than a minute. We all then sagely agreed that going down in a game very early can be an advantage, because you then have to forget your nerves and really play, and often you do, with the resulting momentum sweeping you to a big win. Australia will be back, we said.

At first we were wrong, as the Lions opened up an amazing 19-3 lead. But although the Australian backs were operating behind a losing scrum they still looked dangerous, and Australia scored thirteen unanswered points either side of half time. Who was to say they wouldn’t carry on scoring? We all then expected a game just like the previous two, of the sort that would be settled by whoever kicked their penalty kicks in the final few minutes coming out one or two points ahead, in a series that could easily have gone either way, 3-0 in either direction if just a few kicks had fallen just a bit more this way or that way.

So, Lions only 3 points up, and from having been unstoppable suddenly looking very vulnerable, with about half an hour to go. What then happened? What happened was that the Lions backs suddenly sprang to life and scored three dashing tries, sweeping the Lions to victory by the mind-boggling margin of 25 points. Who saw that coming? Not me. Not Michael, or the two other blokes. In retrospect, that most flawless of observational procedures, it was all inevitable, given the scrum advantage the Lions had established. But at the time, it was astonishing.

Or consider Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win the following afternoon. No less a personage than former champion Boris Becker, commentating for the BBC, said that the one score-line he had really not been expecting was three sets to nil. He didn’t think either player would let that happen. Yet Djokovic, famously a man who is never beaten until truly beaten, did. Murray, who had come back from two sets down in an earlier round and who lost the first set of his semi-final, did not, come the final, lose a single set. What odds could you have got beforehand against that happening?

I am sure that there is some suitably Samizdata-ish moral to append to the above, about how the uncertainty of sport mirrors the uncertainty of life itself, and that the uncertainty of life proves the necessity for the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Well, that will have to be it. I have a cricket match to attend to.

England have won the toss, and will bat.