Friday, May 10, 2013

For those in peril on the sea

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave.”

The school hymn of Pangbourne College, alma mater of Andrew Simpson, the Olympic sailor who lost his life yesterday in a capsizing off San Francisco, keeps coming into my mind.

Composed as a poem by William Whiting in 1860 and set to music a year later by John Dykes, the hymn has long been adopted by navies around the world and is often sung on Remembrance Sunday. So it was appropriate that it should be a favourite at Pangbourne, whose founding mission was to prepare boys for a career in the Merchant Navy.

As well as Simpson, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2008 and a silver last summer, the school produced Rodney Pattisson, twice an Olympic sailing champion, John Ridgway, an ocean sailor and rower, and Mike Hailwood, the former world champion motorcyclist and Formula One driver who died in a car accident at the age of 40, albeit not racing on a track as seemed to be the fate of many of his contemporaries.

What connects them, apart from the school, is they spent their lives in quest of a thrill. They were not happy with risk-avoidance; they wanted to live in adventure without regret.

Having covered sailing for The Times for a few years, I had got to know Simpson, Ben Ainslie and Iain Percy, his fellow Olympians and childhood friends, quite well. I even sailed with them in an America’s Cup yacht four years ago, a faintly terrifying experience.

That was in the older monohull boat, though. The craft to be used for this year’s America’s Cup is a monstrous beast, 72ft long and with a mast 13 storeys high. The catamaran’s wing sail, a rigid structure designed to give maximum force, is bigger than the wing of a jumbo jet.

Speaking to a colleague last October, after another of these AC72 boats had flipped over off San Francisco, Max Sirena, the skipper of the Italian America’s Cup team, said that they would not dare to take guests out on it in anything but the lightest conditions.

An investigation is now under way to discover the cause of the accident that claimed Simpson’s life and many are calling for the America’s Cup, due to be held in September, to be postponed or raced in smaller boats. Safety must not be compromised by speed.

Yet I wonder if it is what the sailors really want. Most of them love pushing their boats and themselves to the limit and when not racing yachts will spend their leisure in other apparently hazardous pursuits, such as kite-surfing.

“These are dangerous boats,” Sirena said today. “The boat is basically too powerful. At the same time, this is our sport. This is a risk we take.” For him, danger was to be anticipated and measures put in place to survive it, but never to be wholly avoided.

When the US Oracle team’s AC72 capsized last October, it was while doing a turning manoeuvre in choppy water with a 25 knot wind. They call the point of no return in such a move “the death zone” and the only way to get through it is to go as fast as you can.

On that occasion, although the boat capsized, there were no significant injuries to any of the crew. Speaking almost flippantly after the event, Tom Slingsby, one of the sailors, said: “We’ve been pushing the boat more and more and we found our limit today.” A crew-mate recalled the last thing he heard before leaping into the water was his skipper shouting at them to keep an eye on each other.

Last summer, before the Olympics, I chatted to Simpson and Percy about their friendship, which had lasted more than 25 years. One poignant phrase of Simpson’s sticks in the mind today. Asked whether they had any plans to retire, Percy said that racing was what they lived for.

Simpson added: “I think I would struggle just pottering up and down creeks in my old age.”

“Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!”

Thursday, April 18, 2013

No news is good news

This is a dreadful thing for a journalist to admit, but I often wish that there was no news and that events would take a day off.

Not that I want to shirk. I could spend the time researching a story or writing a book or catching up on the admin I never have time for. But as a consumer of 24-hour news, I would love it all to stop, just for one day. To switch on the television and find that nothing is happening; to go on to Twitter and see that the most recent post was from yesterday; to find only music on the radio. This is what happened 83 years ago today at the start of the BBC’s 6.30pm radio bulletin.

“Good evening,” a newsreader said, doubtless wearing a dinner jacket. “Today is Good Friday. There is no news.”

With no thought of padding out this uneventful bulletin by asking a celebrity for their view on the weather or manufacturing some political controversy to fill time, the airwaves were then given over instead to piano music. It sounds lovely.

Looking at The Times for April 19, 1930, it seems the BBC could have found some news if they had looked hard enough, although that would have involved turning to page 4, since the first three pages were adverts.

In the late debates in Parliament on Thursday (there was no Times on Good Friday) there had been discussion of the death penalty, the withdrawal of grant for cadet corps, the introduction of a 48-hour week and concerns about growing unrest in India. All worth a snippet on the news? No, said the BBC.

A child in Yorkshire was killed by a collapsed wall, two people died within half an hour of each other in separate car crashes in London and a man appeared in court on a charge of homicide after 70 children died in a fire in his Paisley cinema.

Up north, there was news of a threat to Hadrian’s Wall after planning permission was granted for a quarry near by, the National Union of Teachers had things to say about raising the school leaving age to 15, while the sports pages looked ahead to the final match in the Five Nations rugby, with France needing to beat Wales to win their first ever title (they lost 11-0).

In foreign news, the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalists, were banned in Singapore, while in Germany the sole minister representing the Nazi Party (one Herr Frick) had proposed a series of racist measures in the state of Thuringia, including a ban on jazz bands “and music made with clashing instruments”. He was also keen to limit school lessons about the Old Testament “because of its essentially Jewish character”.

The Times noted that this new Nazi Party “may take an increasing part in German politics for a year or two”...

None of this, however, was of much interest to the BBC. No news today was the decision and no news there was. After the saturation coverage of the Thatcher funeral and the unending slog of gloom about austerity measures, Syria/Iraq/Korea and the weather, wouldn’t it be nice if we could again be given another day without news?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: a Prime Minister for the nuance-free Twitter age

It was a Thursday morning, double-history. I can’t recall what we were meant to be studying — almost certainly the Nazis or the Tudors since that was all we ever studied — but instead of ordering us to open our books, Mr Heath turned on the television. Today, he said, we are going to be watching history. Today, the BBC informed us, the only Prime Minister we had ever known had decided to stand down.

Momentous events often happen on November 22. John F Kennedy was assassinated then, for a start. Monarchy was restored to Spain on the death of Franco, Angela Merkel became Germany’s first female Chancellor and the Orange Revolution kicked off in Ukraine. It was when Jonny Wilkinson drop-goaled England to the rugby World Cup, too.

For that third-form class watching history being made, the sight of Mrs Thatcher being taken to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen and a collection of grey-haired men coming forward to express their sorrow, doing their best to hide the dripping daggers that they had wielded the night before, marked the end of an era. Born too late for her to snatch our milk, we had only ever known her as PM.

When she left Downing Street for the last time it shook up our knowledge, our security, of the way the world was. We felt the same when John Craven left Newsround.

Enough has been written on Thatcher’s influence and legacy, with neither her supporters nor her detractors giving much ground in the past two decades. It was appropriate that she should live long enough to reach the age of Twitter, since the 140-character format encourages black-and-white opinions with little nuance.

I struggle to understand both the simpering adoration (I know one Tory MP who has a framed photo of her by his bed) and the utter hatred from people who overlook what a mess the country was in before she came to power. As today’s Times leader reminded us, the day Thatcher became Prime Minister The Times had nothing to say on the matter since the print unions had closed the paper for much of 1979. Surely destroying the power of the unions, who had destroyed her three predecessors and wrecked the economy, was to her credit.

Thatcher was, for me, very much an “on the one hand... on the other” politician. She did some good, she did some bad; she was compassionate to some, intolerant of others; she healed the country, she damaged the country.

One thing is certain: the critics who say that she was divisive are utterly wrong. No other politician has so united the country in having a strong opinion about them, one way or the other. No one ever remembers Thatcher with a shrug.

As a grammar school boy with a strong work ethic, I should have been her sort of person but there was also something about her that made me think we would never have hit it off. That manic certainty, for a start, and the fact that despite (or through) growing up in Colchester I loathed the crass, vapid, money-centric, culture-free Essex Man she had created. They were her people, not me. I was Tory, but an old-school One Nationer.

We are all Thatcherites now, the Prime Minister declared this morning. Maybe economically we are, or most of us. But as I have got older, I have identified more with the Tory wets. I suspect that if I had been one of her MPs, I would have had too much compassion (or too little spine) to approve some of her measures. I always admired John Major’s hesitation more than her conviction.

I met them both when I worked at Conservative Central Office more than a decade ago. The early William Hague philosophy of compassionate conservatism based upon kitchen-table issues, a positive move that gained no traction with the electorate who wanted to punish the Tories with at least two terms out of office, had been ditched in favour of a strong anti-euro, anti-immigration, play-to-the-base policy. It was a grim time.

Part of this shunt, this attempt to pick up at least the love of the Daily Mail if not a parliamentary majority, meant bringing back Thatcher. “The Mummy returns” she declared at conference, to rapturous applause in the hall and shudders round the country. I felt uneasy, knowing that any of the good she had done in her first two terms in office would be swamped by more recent memories of the poll tax and section 28.

Thatcher was brought round the Central Office “war room”, supposedly to rally morale. We spoke briefly. She complained about the BBC being biased and told me not to let John Humphrys keep getting away with it.

I also met Major during that campaign. The first time we spoke, he asked what was happening in the news and having run through a few headlines I told him that Surrey were winning at the Oval. We then chatted about cricket for 20 minutes.

The next time he came round was just after the new Wisden had been published. He saw it sitting on my desk and, ignoring the manifesto, grabbed the yellow book and started to thumb through it. For a few minutes, the election was forgotten and we talked instead about the upcoming Ashes. Both would inevitably result in a thrashing. Call me soppingly wet, but this was my sort of PM.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pats on the back

The Times was named Sports Newspaper of the Year last night by the Sports Journalists Association. It was pleasing not just because it was the third year in a row that we have been given the prize, which is judged by other sports editors, but because 2012 was a pretty enormous year for sport and you'd assume competition would be tougher than ever.

It's a tribute to everyone in the department, from the top man down to the hard-working unsung subs who stop us from looking too idiotic every day, and I'm proud to have been part of the team for eight years, even if at times it feels like my role amounts to that of Gary Pratt during the 2005 Ashes.

But this blog isn't about me or about The Times. Instead, I wanted to doff the cap to three friends in other organisations for their awards, with whom I have shared many beers abroad and whose company I always enjoy.

So well done to Richard Heathcote, snapper supreme for Getty Images, who won Picture of the Year; to Oliver Brown, the softly spoken purple proser of the Telegraph, for being named Interviewer of the Year; and to Lawrence Booth, for whom it can only be a matter of time before they call him the Sage of Northampton, who snapped up Scoop of the Year for his story in the Daily Mail last year about Kevin Pietersen's text messages to the South Africa camp about his captain.

Doos-gate, as it came to be known after the unflattering Afrikaans word that KP used to describe Andrew Strauss, was one of those stories that shaped news coverage of the England team for more than one day, right up until they headed off on tour to India two months later. It may have even influenced Strauss's decision to resign the captaincy. So blame Lawrence when we lose the Ashes.

Lawrence is also, as if he doesn't have enough to do, Editor of Wisden, one of those jobs in journalism so important that you have to capitalise the E. As custodians of the Laws, spirit, records and warmth of cricket, Wisden Editors don't tend to get much time for scoops. The Voice of Authority does not dirty his hands with digging up such things, but rather stands above it all and pontificates beautifully on why they matter (or not).

John Woodcock, the former chief cricket correspondent of The Times and Editor of Wisden in the 1980s, was once asked a couple of years ago whether he had ever had a scoop in his long career in journalism.

"There was usually one most days if you looked for it," he said. "I used to hide them in the seventh or eighth paragraph."

In those days, when journalists mixed more freely with sportsmen and friendship mattered more than exclusives, scoops were considered rather infra dig.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Nightmair before Breakfast

“You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”

Eddie Mair’s interview with Boris Johnson yesterday morning was a brutal disembowelling, a deflating of one of the great characters in politics, and it was great fun to watch. I doubt, however, that it will do much damage to BoJo’s reputation in the long run. As the Prime Minister said today: "Never underestimate the ability of Boris to get out of a tight spot."

Those tearing into Johnson yesterday and today hated him already; while those he has charmed in the past — and he has been electorally the most (the only?) successful Tory politician of the past two decades despite his many foibles — will soon forget this. Johnson, like Bill Clinton, has an easy knack of making people overlook his failings.

Yet it was quite a surprise how poorly he handled Mair. Johnson tends to be good at moving on after gaffes. He has, after all, had a bit of practice. The usual method is to apologise (something so few politicians ever consider when in the wrong), quip something in Latin or preferably Aramaic and steer the conversation on to something else with lashings of charm. I don't know why he didn't do the same yesterday; it's not as if he was hit with new weapons.

The three questions about his personal integrity that Mair put to him had all been aired extensively in the past and, grating though it must be for them to come up again, Johnson could have waved them off with his usual “admit and apologise” strategy. Here’s how:

Did you make up a quote while working for The Times? “Yes, gosh, that was terribly poor form of me. Schoolboy error, quite rightly given six of the best and sent packing. I never thought my own godfather, of whom I fabricated the quote, would grass me up. Still, it was years ago and everyone knows about it.”

Did you lie to Michael Howard about your affair? “Yes, cripes, who hasn’t lied when confronted by a beak about having an affair? Quite rightly given six of the best and sent packing. Deeply regret it now. Mea maxima culpa.”

Did you tell Darius Guppy you’d give him a journalist’s address so he could get him beaten up? “Yes, that’s been gone over lots of times as well. Very bad of me, but the old bean was in a dreadful state and chums say silly things in private conversations that they don’t mean. I never did act on that promise. Don't you have any new questions you want to ask me?”

I think the main reason why Johnson handled these questions so badly is Mair’s manner. He is like a disapproving headmaster, never sneering or raising his voice but able to make his subject feel small and his own displeasure quite clear. It has the effect of making politicians feel bashful and ashamed.

The quote at the top of this piece, a damningly blunt attack, was delivered in a calm, level tone and so felt more damaging. Mair is the ideal iron fist inside a velvet glove.

I experienced the Mair method myself 18 months ago when I went on Radio 4’s PM to talk about The Times’s scoop of getting hold of the RFU dossier into England’s poor rugby World Cup.

Mair, in the same calm but damning tone, accused us of sensationalism, saying that we had “only published the negative comments and none of the positive feedback”.

I replied that the three dossiers leaked to my colleague, Mark Souster, amounted to 100 A4 double-spaced pages and that over the previous four days we had given 23 pages of The Times to reporting what was said, meaning there was barely a sentence left out. I also pointed out a few of the positive comments we had published and said the reason we didn’t print more is there simply weren’t more.

I think I did a good job, but I was speaking from a position of honesty and still felt besieged. I can well imagine how off-putting Mair’s style must be to someone who has something to feel ashamed about even, as in Johnson’s case, when the story is public anyway.

The main thing that came out of the Sunday morning humiliation was not the effect it will have on Johnson’s career, but what it might do to Mair’s. Instead of standing in for the big names when they are away, as he is doing for Andrew Marr on Sundays and has done for Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, he deserves a regular crack on one of the BBC’s punchiest programmes. It would become required viewing.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Plum sauce

The news that Sebastian Faulks is to take on the mantle of PG Wodehouse and write a new Jeeves and Wooster novel 40 years after the last, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, has had a largely negative reception, many ardent Wodehouseans fearing that he won’t be able to pull it off.

In a piece in The Times this morning, I tried to be more encouraging. Faulks, after all, understands the canon, as demonstrated in this piece two years ago, and is unlikely to be guilty of trying too hard.

As I mischievously suggested, perhaps Faulks will really horrify the traditionalists by modernising the Jeeves format, having the valet rescuing Bertie from a gay marriage to Gussie Fink-Nottle, at which the Reverend Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng was due to conduct the ceremony. I suspect not.

But can he conjure the wit, seemingly effortless yet laden with historical and literary references, of Wodehouse that proves so charming? There is a wonderful website that allows you, by refreshing the page, to read a selection of randomly chosen Wodehouse quotes.

To take the first three that came up just now:
  • “Bingo uttered a stricken woofle like a bull-dog that has been refused cake.”
  • “Why is there unrest in India? Because its inhabitants eat only an occasional handful of rice. The day when Mahatma Gandhi sits down to a good juicy steak and follows it up with a roly-poly pudding and a spot of stilton, you will see the end of all this nonsense of Civil Disobedience.”
And, my favourite:
  • “Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”
Good luck matching that, Sebastian.

He is not the first man to try to replicate Wodehouse, though he is the first to have an official imprimatur. Eileen McIlvaine’s Wodehouse: A Comprehensive Bibliography records 29 “imitations, parodies and other flights of fancy”.

My colleague, Simon Barnes, wrote a Wodehouse-style short story called How’s That, Jeeves? for a collection of cricket-themed parodies called A La Recherche Du Cricket Perdu, in which Bertie is a county captain, Jeeves his dressing-room attendant and Madeleine Bassett a telephonist.

In 1979, four years after Wodehouse’s death, Northcote Parkinson, a naval historian, wrote a fictional life of Jeeves, called A Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman (he had done the same a few years earlier for Horatio Hornblower), while Peter Cannon, in a rather slim volume of three short stories called Scream for Jeeves, attempted rather surprisingly to marry the styles of Wodehouse and H.P. Lovecraft.

There is also a pastiche by Barry Tighe that fits into the tries-too-hard category called Gieves to the Fore (he had to tweak the names under legal warning, so Gieves attends on Bartie Wooster and his rival, Spade).

The most interesting Wodehouse tribute, though, can be found in a fabulous study published last year of Wodehouse’s influence on the theatre, called Second Row, Grand Circle, by Tony Ring.

In it, Ring has discovered that Thornton Wilder, the American winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, started upon a stage play called Homage to P. G. Wodehouse, in 1938 but never completed it.

Manuscripts found in the Thornton Wilder Papers at Yale University reveal two drafts of scenes that refer to Freddie Threepwood, heir to the Blandings empire, his manservant Jeeves (on secondment from Wooster?), an Aunt Augusta, the Drones club and some missing jewels.

It sounds fascinating, but Wilder maybe did not feel up to the challenge of echoing the Master and ended the project. Does Faulks know what he has let himself in for?

Friday, March 01, 2013

Don't let the Loonies win. Any of them

The biggest losers of the Eastleigh by-election were not the Tories or the Labour Party, they were the Monster Raving Loonies, whose candidate received only 136 votes, about 100 fewer than the man from the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party.

When the Lib Dems first won Eastleigh at a by-election in 1994, profiting from the sitting Tory MP being found dead wearing stockings and suspenders with a flex round his neck and an orange in his mouth (ah, those were the days when sex scandals were done well), the Loonies received 783 votes.

The UK Independence Party, whose candidate was one Nigel Farage, polled only 170 votes more.

That was the same year that a Monster Raving Loony candidate, "Top Cat" Owen, got 2,859 votes in the European elections. Truly, 1994 was a halcyon time for the loonies.

Mais ou sont les Loons d'antan, as Farage is always saying. They have faded from our scene. In the previous by-election of this Parliament, in Croydon North, the Loonies got 110 votes, just pipping the candidate standing on the platform that "9/11 was an inside job".

No one votes Loony these days in part because the joke has worn thin. The death of their founder, Screaming Lord Sutch, in 1999 also robbed them of their charisma. But perhaps it is also because people feel that loonies are now in the mainstream.

That is certainly the feeling I get looking at the post-Eastleigh reaction in the Tory Party. Stewart Jackson MP writes a piece in the Spectator blaming the result on David Cameron’s support for gay marriage and the response is loads of comments attacking Jackson for not being right wing enough.

As Jerry Hayes, one of the remaining voices of sanity in the Party, wrote today: "Of course there will be the usual primal screams for a change of course. More traditional policies, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant, anti-union and an abhorrence of same-sex marriage. The delightful irony was that Maria Hutchings represented all of these things. She was the standard bearer of the Amish wing of the Tories.

"The electorate had no doubt what her views were. They were not remotely Cameroon. So when the usual suspects demand that the party drifts to the right and abandons modernisation they should be reminded that voters were offered all that they consider to be a masturbatory dream and rejected them."

I doubt that Cameron’s backbenchers will make that link. They will look at the decision by Tory High Command to keep Hutchings away from the media after she told them that the local state schools weren’t good enough for her son and decide that if only she had been allowed to speak up more often, votes would not have leaked to Ukip.

Maybe not, but the Tories would still not have won and perhaps some of their votes would have gone over to the Lib Dem candidate. I know that I, as a former Tory Central Office staffer, would struggle to put my cross next to someone like Hutchings.

Ironically, this result, looked at with calmness and sanity, is a good thing for David Cameron. Instead of the election of a candidate from the loony wing of his party who would no doubt be a troublesome and gobby backbencher, he has gained a loyal member of the Coalition. This vote was a victory for the Government, not a defeat for the Tories.

And perhaps that is the biggest lesson to be drawn from Eastleigh, that this was a disaster for Labour and Ed Miliband. On a decent turnout their share of the vote went up by 0.22 per cent and remains less than half of what it was at the 2005 General Election. All talk of being a One Nation party that can win seats around the country was just froth. They have as much work to do as the Tories, maybe more.

The key to winning the next election will be the state of the economy in 2015 and how people feel about the future. Petrol prices, inflation and jobs are what matter, not Europe, gays and immigration. When people cannot afford to feed themselves, they tend not to give a toss about same-sex marriage.

The candidate ahead of the Loonies in Eastleigh may have it spot on. To twist Bill Clinton’s adage: it’s the beer, baccy and crumpets, stupid.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Save wrestling, ditch wiff-waff

It’s a common argument in politics: if you don’t want a service cut, suggest something else that should go instead. The money only spreads so far; everything saved must be balanced by something being lost.

That is the problem facing the International Olympic Committee. Seven sports want to be admitted to the Olympic family for 2020 but in order for one of them to come in, something else must leave. Last week the IOC decided that wrestling would be the sport up for execution.

When the IOC meets in September to decide the programme for 2020, the seven candidate sports — squash, baseball/softball, roller sports, climbing, wakeboarding, karate and wushu — will be pitching for a place at the top table at the expense of one of the world’s oldest competitive sports.

Few of us, in Britain anyway, really understand wrestling as it is contested at the Olympics. It’s a long way from the showbusiness that is American simulated wrestling or what we remember being presented on ITV by Dickie Davies, but it has its roots in man’s earliest impulses. Ever since we came down from the trees we have wanted to grapple.

There are cave paintings 10,000 years old showing men doing pretty much what Greco-Roman Olympic wrestlers do. The heroes are always at it in Homer, while it was introduced into the ancient Olympics in 704BC. Naturally, Baron de Coubertin wanted it as part of his revived Olympics (although he was squeamish about them doing it naked) and so it has been part of every Games with the exception of 1900.

Now it is to go and it feels like the Olympics is losing part of its soul. I would feel the same if modern pentathlon, a sport invented for the Olympics and which was also under threat, had been chosen. Much as I believe that squash should be at the Games, I don’t want it there at the expense of a core Olympic sport.

So, the politicians would say, if I want squash in and don’t want to lose wrestling, what would I cut? Personally, I’d get rid of golf or tennis, both of which feel wrong as Olympic sports (no one’s going to claim that a gold medal means as much to Andy Murray as a major title or that Rory McIlroy would take one over a green jacket at Augusta), but since money and sponsorship matter so much these days to the Olympic Movement they are probably safe.

I quite like the suggestion by my former colleague John Goodbody in the Sunday Times yesterday that the IOC could make room in the Summer Olympics by moving some of the indoor sports to the less congested Winter Olympic schedule (why not do weightlifting or badminton as a winter sport?) but I also can’t see that happening.

Instead, my choice would be based on universality. The medals on offer at the Games should, as far as possible, be available to as many nations as possible. That is one of the attractions of squash, which would give good medal chances to Egypt (just 12 Olympic medals since 1948, only one gold) and Malaysia (six medals, none gold).

Wrestling medals have been won by 54 different countries since 1896 and at London 2012 it was one of the most diverse sports, with medals won by 29 countries including Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Puerto Rico.

Only athletics (41 different countries won medals) was more universal. And what was the least? Ignoring synchronised swimming (3 medals) and hockey (5), both of which only have two contests, it is table-tennis. Just five nations won medals and China took all four golds and two silvers.

In fact, China has dominated table-tennis since the sport appeared on the Olympic programme in 1988. Of the 28 gold medals won in that time, Chinese ping-pongers have taken 24 (South Korea three and Sweden one). China has also won 15 silvers and eight bronzes. It effectively gives them six or seven medals every Games.

How can the IOC justify retaining such a one-sided sport? Surely if the Olympics are about the world united in sport, it is time (and with apologies to Boris Johnson) for wiff-waff to be cut from the programme.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Thoughts on gay marriage

Gosh, it is tough to be an Anglican Tory at times. Today being one of them. But as the opponents of gay marriage try to get all Christian Conservatives labelled as frothing loons, I hope it is understood that not all of us - not even a majority of us - are so uncaring. Anyway, here are a few random thoughts of my own:

I didn’t get married in order to have children, although it was part of our hope for the future. Plenty of people, after all, are magically able to have children outside of marriage, not least Joseph and Mary who were merely “espoused”, or engaged to be married, when Mary discovered she had been made pregnant with the Spirit of the Lord. The religious right always seem to miss that.

Nor did I get married for tax reasons and much as I could do with some extra money these days, it is not the hope that George Osborne might bless our union with a few quid that keeps me married.

I married for love, crazy unorthodox fool that I am, and the belief that it was important to solemnise that love in a religious setting, surrounded by friends and family, and to make a public pronouncement of our long-term commitment to each other. We had moved past the pilot episode and decided to give it a full series. Marriage gave a solid base to our lives, but it could not have been laid without love.

Marriage these days should only be about love. It is no longer about the financial advantage of uniting families or the transfer of a woman, along with other chattels, into a man’s care. It is an adventure embarked on by equals.

Which is why it baffles me that there is such vehement opposition to extending this beautiful ceremony and status to those who love each other but are of the same gender. What actual harm is caused by letting gay people marry?

The opponents talk a lot about gay marriage “undermining the institution of marriage” but never go farther and say why. How is their marriage or that of any other straight couple made less valid by two gay men or women expressing the same commitment to each other?

Surely the institution is reinforced by more people wanting to make that commitment? Is it not, instead, the two million unmarried couples who are undermining the tradition?

Or how about those couples who divorce and then remarry and then divorce and remarry again? The Katie Price principle. Are they not undermining the institution of marriage more than a couple of loved-up gay guys?

Why are the Peter Bones and Gerald Howarths of this world not campaigning to ban procreation outside of marriage and outlaw divorce? It would be outlandish but at least consistent with their argument.

And what about those who get married and either cannot or choose not to have children? Are they not violating that principle that Charles Moore and the rest of the anti-gay brigade keep banging on about that marriage is all about the kiddies?

Yes, there is part of the wedding service that talks about the hope that the union will be blessed with children, but that can be as easily glossed over, or edited out, as the “wives submit to your husbands” bit that my wife insisted we excise.

Marriage has evolved to reflect society but the root purpose of it, the thing that drives many of us instinctively to wanting to make that public statement, has not changed and that is the same innate impulse whether you are gay or straight.

I do not believe that churches should be forced to offer gay marriage, although I am disappointed that this is not to be an option to individuals within the Church of England. I know plenty of Anglicans, including priests, who would be happy to see a gay marriage celebrated in their church.

The rights of those who have religious objections must be respected. It confuses me, though, why a gay couple would want to get married by a priest who does not wish them well.

The opponents are on stronger ground when they complain that the Bill does not recognise the consummation of a gay marriage and thus will not allow for divorce on the grounds of adultery. This is an odd error of drafting or a great failure of imagination.

Since hardly anyone these days — surely — is a virgin when they get married, is it not just assumed that straight marriages are consummated? No one has to provide evidence that they had sex after marriage and it can hardly be tested in a court. Similarly, when people divorce because of adultery they are rarely found in bed with their lover. It is either admission or enough circumstantial evidence of an affair that gets them and why can those assumptions not be made for gay couples?

David Cameron is to be admired for making this stand of principle. He did not need to do it. I doubt it will win him many extra votes in the gay community and they may be offset anyway by those who escape to Ukip over this. There was no campaign of pressure that forced him to this point, he simply went for it because it is right.

In doing so, the Prime Minister has shown much more courage than two previous Labour Prime Ministers did. I have always thought that the introduction of civil partnerships was a cowardly fudge that somehow sent out the message that gay people couldn’t make the same commitment as straights. It is time to correct that distinction. To do so would be the kind, and I suggest, Christian thing.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Service above self

Sam Foster is a nursery nurse at my daughter's nursery in southeast London. I doubt she earns very much and she has a son at university to support but like everyone else who works there she has a wonderful attitude towards her job.

Take this morning. It snowed a bit over the weekend. Not as much as in some parts of the country but enough to make the roads a bit skiddy and to bugger up the trains. For some people this was a green light to bunk off (sorry, work from home), while others had to make an extra effort.

In my wife's case, this involved getting me out of bed at 5am so I could drive her to a Tube station because her train wasn't running. But this isn't about my sacrifice. Anyway, I quite like driving on icy roads. It adds challenge.

Sam usually takes a train to the nursery but they were not running. Most people would have cried off at this point, but Sam pulled on her wellies and decided to walk in. It took her two and a half hours. One of her colleagues gave her a lift home tonight and measured the distance: seven miles.

Sam was not the only hero. Every member of staff was at the nursery by 7.30am. It helped that the council had done their job, even if the train companies hadn't, and cleared the roads but that is still a fine effort. As a result, no parent had to take the day off - and with most children at the nursery having two working parents that is not only a relief for them but a saving for the economy.

Yet when I arrived this morning I found that the nursery owner's six-year-old daughter was also there because the head teacher of her primary school had decided to close on account of the snow, in common with a few other primaries in Lewisham borough.

Almost 5,000 schools across the country were closed today and I'm sure that in many rural areas this was a necessity, but the snow was not so bad in cities that this had to be an option. It certainly wasn't in London. If the staff at a private nursery school can travel seven miles to ensure that their children are looked after and educated, why do our state schools close the gates so easily?

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Fishcakes and coelacanths: how to swear like CMJ and Captain Haddock

I telephoned my wife by accident just before Christmas, having leant on the phone while driving, and left a voicemail that she later played back to me with a fit of giggles.

About 10 seconds of beautiful violin music is heard, punctuated suddenly by a bellow of “indicate, you fucker” as one of London’s many selfish motorists changed direction without thinking to let anyone know. I swear a lot when driving. God knows what my baby daughter is picking up in the back.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins, who died last week, had plenty of misadventures with mobile phones but it is hard to imagine him ever leaving a profane voicemail. One of the delightful repeated references in the tributes paid to him was how creatively unsweary he was. “Fishcakes” was a common euphemism, as was “Captain Carruthers”.

For really bad occasions, he would say “Billingsgate Harbour”, “Bishen Singh Bedi” or “Billy Goats Gruff”. He was also fond of composers. If he ever shouted “Beethoven” things were pretty dire.

And then there was “Fotheringay Thomas”, which I first read in Jonathan Agnew’s tribute in our paper and assumed was an error. “Which **** of a sub-editor didn’t query that?” I probably said in my agricultural way, because, as any fule kno, it was surely meant in reference to Basil Fotherington-Thomas, the school swot in the Molesworth books of the 1950s, right, who is always skipping around saying “hello clouds, hello sky”.

But Fotheringay was how it appeared in all the other tributes and obituaries, so that must have been what he used to say. Odd that CMJ, such a stickler for getting things right, should err a little in his creative swearing.

There is great art in the inventive non-obscenity. The master, of course, was Captain Haddock, Tintin’s crusty companion, who uses 211 different swear words in their 16 adventures together, usually after one too many Loch Lomonds.

“Anthropithecus” is one of many scientific abuses he employs. “Bashi-bazouks”, “Coelacanth”, “Iconoclast”... And then there are the alliterative strings of curses: “Billions of blue blistering barnacles”; “ten thousand thundering typhoons”; “lily-livered landlubbers”.

As someone who grew up on Tintin, I really should have followed Haddock’s lead. There is something quite classy about raiding the dictionary for a good non-offensive swear, which follows on from the minced oaths of yore that were designed to avoid blasphemy such as bloody (by our Lady), egad (Oh God) and zounds (by God’s wounds).

Instead, I tend to eff and blind like a docker, although I have my own elegant variations, usually involving the c word being adjectival (“indicate you c***ing fucker”) or the portmanteau of twunt. I blame my first boss in journalism, the shy and retiring Giles Coren.

Now that my daughter is 2, though, I need to rein it in a bit, otherwise I could have some awkward conversations when she starts school. Instead of calling other motorists fuckers, perhaps they should be philistines; for wanker read Wanamaker; and as for the C word, well there the benchmark has already been set by Test Match Sofa, the amateur online cricket commentary.

Although the Sofa is less sweary than when it started, the language used is still more rustic than the BBC would tolerate. There has always, however, been a blanket ban on calling someone by the most offensive word.

Instead, they use the word Bradman, in the hope that overuse will eventually lead to the great Australian batsman’s name becoming similarly unusable in polite company. “Indicate, you Bradman” will be my new roar of the road. Or perhaps, in extremis, “indicate, you Ponting”.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Memories of CMJ

I first met Christopher Martin-Jenkins in April 2005, although like hundreds of thousands of listeners of Test Match Special I already felt that I knew this voice of summer. I had been at The Times for almost four years by then, but my relationship with cricket was still that of a fan and our first meeting was not in a press box but at his former house in West Sussex, which he wanted my help to sell.

Having started on the paper's gossip column, I had moved to join our new property supplement, Bricks and Mortar, where I wrote features about people and places. In early 2005, the property editor got a very polite, slightly sheepish email from our then cricket correspondent, whose house had been on the market without offers for some time. Could we help to give it a nudge? Knowing that I liked cricket, she sent me down to speak to CMJ.

“Quintessential English gem” said the sales particulars. It was not clear whether that referred to the house or the man. CMJ was English through and through, from his elegant manners and precision with language to his upper front teeth, splayed like stumps after an encounter with Glenn McGrath.

He was a poet, but an effortless one. I wrote in my piece on his house that he was the sort of commentator who would describe a batsman as taking to the game “like a mallard to a mere” rather than a duck to water, presumably a phrase I had heard him use. He never burbled or waffled, unlike some in the box. If he ever mentioned a pigeon, there would be a damn good reason for it.

The property was enormous. A red-brick Georgian eight-bedroom house with sash windows and wisteria up the wall, set in 44 acres with an avenue of lime trees, a cricket net and a ten-hole pitch-and-putt golf course. “I had too much room for just nine holes,” he mentioned, without pretension. He and his wife wanted to downsize before his retirement from full-time cricket-writing.

Naturally, we talked about cricket and perhaps my recognition when he casually mentioned in front of a portrait of Alfred Mynn that his wife was descended from the mid-19th-century Kent all-rounder helped us to strike a rapport.

It is well known that the teenaged CMJ wrote to Brian Johnston for advice on how to become a cricket commentator, but I had not seen what Johnners replied so asked him. “He told me to go and practise on a tape recorder,” CMJ said. “So I used to hide myself in quiet spots of the county ground and make commentaries. I would also commentate on games between myself and my brothers.”

It paid off: by the age of 28 he was cricket correspondent of the BBC and spent 40 years commentating on and writing about his greatest love.

But downsizing came with a price. I remember the sadness in his voice when he showed the garage where boxes were filled with a couple of hundred cricket books that he was having to sell because of lack of space in the new house. Ian Botham's Don't Tell Kath was top of the pile. Maybe he had a second copy.

Many young journalists have written on Twitter today about how CMJ had helped them early in their careers, but I can't recall having the guts to ask him for advice that day. However, by that summer I had started a process of moving across to the sports department.

After helping out with some of the fiddly bits of coverage of that year's phenomenal Ashes series – the statistics panels and suchlike – I was semi-poached from the property section, first for a couple of days a week and then full-time.

For a while, I was just on the subs' desk, where I remember CMJ's phone calls to check his copy – always polite, but always quite rightly firm when someone wanted to “improve” his words. I recall one incident when he had a strop because someone had amended a reference to Paul Collingwood being “cabined, cribbed, confined”, arguing that if it was good enough for Shakespeare it was more than good enough for The Times.

When I got out of the office and started to cover home Test matches I found him always a delightful, charming, intelligent man. We were in Dubai for England's series against Pakistan and I think the last time I saw him was when he was shopping with his wife in a souk.

He talked about how as he got older he insisted that she went on tours with him so that they could spend more time together. They were friends since university and had been married for more than 40 years. Alas, it was on their next overseas trip, a holiday in St Lucia, where the cancer that killed him was diagnosed.

We last communicated by email in November, when it was clear that the illness was terminal, but the tone of his message was still upbeat. A strong Christian, he found his faith comforting during what must have been an awful time for him and his family.

Everyone has a story about CMJ's scattiness, poor timekeeping and technophobia and Mike Selvey has shared some brilliant stories, but I remember one occasion when he was not only punctual but actually early. It was the annual Times over-40s v under-40s cricket match in Coldharbour, near Dorking, and CMJ arrived at the ground before almost every other player.

Proud of his punctuality, he went to his car as the pavilion was being opened... only to discover that he had left his kit bag at home. Chastened, he headed back down the hill towards Horsham and eventually arrived, as always, after the toss. It did not seem to put him off his stride: despite his age, CMJ bowled an impeccable length and took something like five wickets for eight runs.

The only other occasion when I recall him participating in a Times sports event was the annual correspondent's golf day. For a bargain price, our golf correspondent had arranged breakfast, a round of golf at Sunningdale and lunch afterwards. CMJ managed to get there by lunch – and only just. But he stayed and ate with us, hearing all our dull stories about duffed chips and missed putts while he apologised for being five hours late.

Cricket has lost a lovely man today. It was a pleasure and privilege to know him a little.