This Sporting Life

Continuing an occasional series called ‘Silly Remarks by Eminent Novelists’, I take mild issue with Philip Hensher today, who complains about the Bank of England governor using World Cup analogies in a recent speech. Carney apparently said: ‘Securing the recovery is like making it through the qualifying rounds of the World Cup – it’s a real achievement but not the end goal.’ To which Hensher responds:

For a start, who are the opponents of the national economy supposed to be? Do we secure the recovery by defeating France? Would its total failure contribute to our final success? Or could it possibly be that, unlike in some stupid football tournament, other nations are our partners, whose success contributes to our own?

The prominence of sport in the communal mind will, I think, astonish future generations when they think about us. The model of a sports competition where opposing sides win or lose, continue or retire is regularly applied to the most inappropriate areas of life.

The use of sporting analogies is a tedious commonplace in business, and to me Carney was doing little more than a throwaway cliché. The prevalence of sports talk is debated by the protagonist of Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares, who says: ‘Perhaps sport has colonised capitalism rather than the other way round… a warped, inferior branch of sport, sport with money’. But the point for Hensher is how this impacts on the British novel:

Alan Bennett last week said mildly that he had come to prefer American novelists to English ones. In the flood of comment that followed, a personal preference was discussed as if one nation’s novelists were somehow competing for the exclusive interest of readers, and there was some World Cup prize to be awarded by the obliteration of one or the other. The idea that most fields of intellectual and social life become valuable by the existence of ongoing variety, and not by the elimination of excellent alternatives, seemed baffling to some commentators.

Bennett’s comparison wasn’t great – his example of fine American writing was Philip Roth, who hung up his boots four years ago – but in the broad sense, to me, the old playwright was correct. Americans have written better over the last half century and I do prefer the bold sprawl of US literature over the contemporary twee, hidebound, UEA-lite, eggshell-stepping British novel. This debate is fuelled in part by a snobbery in British literati towards the upstart Yanks – think of the furore when the Booker opened its doors to American novels, and the ancient slur that Americans ‘don’t understand irony’ and can’t do sophisticated comedies. (This, from the country of Benny Hill to the country of Frasier.)

Hensher then makes a big deductive leap:

Carney’s analogy was probably not very seriously proposed, but spreading a model away from the harmless world of sport into more grave endeavours can actually harm the way we approach the world. Analogies, if inadequate, have the knack of doing this. In the 19th century, the Rhine was often discussed in two different ways: for French thinkers, it was the natural border of the nation; for Germans, it was the system of arteries through which the lifeblood of the Reich pulsed and flowed. Both were absurd; the clash between inadequate analogies led to trouble.

Ah. So because of literary rivalry are British novelists going to annexe the Eastern Seaboard? Will City workers re-enact the Operation of Market Garden? Or are we the Nazis in this? It’s hard to say. Surely our literary spat with Jonathan Franzen doesn’t mean we will try to invade America again. They’ve got drones, for Christ’s sake. But does Hensher give us that credit? Maybe not. He says: ‘If you think, however, of Europeans as belonging to another team, which we hope to beat into total submission, then of course you will resent and dislike its individuals.’ By that logic, football rivalry in this country would lead to a kind of hooligan Afghanistan. Leeds Utd fans would be sending cruise missiles over the Pennines. Mancs and Scousers would be airstriking each other’s cities. Every time Sheffield had a derby, it would look like a scene from downtown Damascus.

Hensher’s piece fits into a fine intellectual tradition of misunderstanding sport. Even George Orwell wrote that ‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ And: ‘big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism.’ Orwell speaks true – but it is not the whole truth. I’m not interested in sport at all, but I grew up and came of age with followers of the teams of North England and have some understanding of how entwined the game is with childhoods, cities, family and friendship. It’s a passion and although I don’t feel it myself I recognise it in others and it’s a chancy thing to fuck with.

Human beings are hardwired for competition. The will to power and victory, the playing of games, the need to feel that you are superior to others – this is an immovable object of human nature. It may not be a particularly good or nice thing but it is the hand we’re dealt and something we have to deal with. Civilising this instinct has worked fairly well. The casual scene in the UK was never huge compared to professional European and Latin American football gangs and has more or less been designed out.

Football is war without the shooting. But without the shooting, there’s no war.


One Response to “This Sporting Life”

  1. Margot Says:

    can I post a section of this that I like ?

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