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Posts Tagged ‘elegant variation’

Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper (1994)

Despite everything, football – in the true sense of the word – is still the best and most beautiful sport on earth. Disliking it because of some of the people who take part in, run it or support it would be like disliking the English language because Tony Blair speaks it or Will Self writes in it. English is bigger than them and football is bigger than sets of Red Devil golf-clubs. Football even has good books written about it. This, unlike Nick Hornby’s far better-known Fever Pitch, is one of those good books. Hornby reminds me of a nose-picker. Yes, he may have devoted a great deal of time to his hobby and derived a great deal of pleasure from it, but why tell the world?

You don’t need to ask that question about this book, because football is the world’s most popular sport and this book is an exploration of how it influences the world’s culture and politics in all manner of strange and unexpected ways. Sometimes disturbing ways too. Or amusing ones. Or both:

The general director agreed to an interview (for free) and the next day I found him in his office. It is basic and battered and located in the basement of the Omnisports Stadium, just a few doors down from the room where he kept 120 pygmies from the Cameroonian rainforests locked up last summer. Milla [a Cameroonian star at the 1990 World Cup] had invited the pygmies to play a few games at the Omnisports, to raise money for their health and education, but he imprisoned them there, issued them with guards (one of whom wore a Saddam Hussein T-shirt) and seldom fed them. A tournament spokesman explained to Reuters: “They play better if they don’t eat too much”. As for the imprisonment: “You don’t know the pygmies. They are extremely difficult to keep in control.” The Omnisports cook concurred: “These pygmies can eat at any time of the day and night and never have enough”. The little hunters themselves were too frightened to comment.

Their tournament was a disaster. Team names included Bee-sting of Lomie and the aptly named Ants of Salapoumbe, but only 50 fans bought tickets, and most of these came strictly to shout abuse at the pygmies.

Absurdity, as the Theatre of the Absurd taught us, can be cruel as well as funny, and Africa can be an absurd place, to the fullest extent of both senses. Football, there as elsewhere, reflects regional character:

Recently, three contracts have appeared for the sale of one player from Torpedo Moscow to Olympiakos Piraeus. One contract is for the Greek tax inspectors, one they show to the player, and the third is the real contract, but no-one knows which is which. (ch. 5, “The Secret Police Chief at Left-Half”)

The former Soviet Union is riddled with corruption, and so is its football. You’ll also learn in this chapter that clubs from Eastern Europe with “Dynamo” in their names were usually set up and run by the Secret Police. That is why they were so unpopular, unless they managed to associate themselves with nationalist aspirations, as Dynamo Kiev did. Kuper devotes a chapter to the club, with fascinating details of the “science of football” developed there that allowed Kiev to dominate European football during the mid-’80s with a team of super-fast, super-fit “robots”.

But I wonder whether pharmacology played its part in their success, as it may have done during the 1982 World Cup, hosted and won by Argentina. Two Argentine forwards, Kuper writes, carried on running for an hour or two after one game, in order to work off drugs they had been injected with on the orders of Argentina’s military dictators. Winning the World Cup was important for public morale, and the generals were prepared to go to any lengths to help the team win it.

Few other sports can affect the mood of an entire nation for better or worse like that, and none can do it as powerfully as football. That makes football uniquely susceptible to corruption, and uniquely placed to reflect national character. Football isn’t the world, but you can find much of what’s important in the world and its people there. If you find yourself wondering how, let Kuper show you, all from the rivalry between Holland and Germany to the Pope’s season ticket at Barcelona by way of an American journalist who holds 0•3% of the shares in Charlton Athletic.

The only complaint I have about the book is the prose, which betrayed occasional tendencies towards one of my pet hates: what Fowler’s Modern English Usage describes as “elegant variation”: that is, referring to a “spade” as a “spade” once, then as a “pedally operated earth-moving implement” before you refer to it as a “spade” again. It’s an aesthetic flaw and that’s a shame in a book about the world’s most aesthetically pleasing sport.

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Mortality by Christopher HitchensMortality, Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 2012; paperback 2013)

Christopher Hitchens died as he lived: writing badly. And raising a lot of questions. Why did intelligent people, some of whom write much better than he did, heap so much praise on him? “Characteristic of his elegant wit,” said the Times of this final brief book. The Irish Times called its author “unremittingly elegant, a master of elegant prose”. Elegant? Elephantine is more like it. As a sample of Hitchens’ execrable style, try this:

…kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system (part I, pg. 7)

Why did “bag of poison” become “venom sack”? Why not simply say “bag of poison” and then “the bag”? Because Hitch followed the adolescent – and irritating – rule of varying words for the sake of it or out of a mistaken fear of boring the reader. Fowler called that rule “elegant variation”. He was being ironic. Which is ironic, because Hitch was supposed to be a master of irony.

He wasn’t. He was a master of pomposity and plodding platitude. For me, he was the Tony Blair of journalism: an untalented and unoriginal man who enjoyed success far beyond his merits. True, there is some good writing here, but Hitchens wasn’t responsible for any of it. Nor was Graydon Carter, an editor of Hitch’s who wrote the introduction. No, the only good writing appears in the afterword by Hitch’s wife Carol Blue:

By the time I saw him standing at the stage entrance of the 92nd Street Y that evening, he and I – and we alone – knew that he might have cancer. We embraced in a shadow that only we saw and chose to defy. We were euphoric. He lifted me up and we laughed. (Afterword, pg. 96)

Carol Blue knows how to play the instrument of English. Her late husband didn’t. She can conjure reality. He couldn’t. But she increases the puzzle of Hitchens’s bad writing not just by doing what he didn’t and couldn’t. Hitch liked Waugh and Wodehouse, but refused to follow their literary example and write well. He also failed to learn anything from three more very good writers, as Blue reveals here:

Slightly down the page he wrote what he wanted me to bring from our guesthouse in Houston:

Nietzsche, Mencken and Chesterton books. (Afterword, pg. 100)

How could Hitchens read those three and still write so badly? Elsewhere Blue offers a glimpse into something that helps explain it: the smugness and self-satisfaction of Hitch’s life and world:

At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find a space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. “How good it is to be us,” he would say in his perfect voice. (Afterword, pp. 94-5)

That “perfect voice” is part of the key to Hitchens’ success, I think. Americans appear to be suckers for a Brit with a posh accent and lots of self-confidence. Moving to the US was the best thing Hitch ever did for his career, because he could play the role of patrician intellectual and polemicist much better over there.

And once there, as he described in Hitch-22, he made friends with other pseuds and windbags, like the late Susan Sontag, also hugely self-confident, also hugely over-rated. She is also an example of how Hitch’s Jewishness was a factor in his success, I think. His maternal ancestry was much more evident in him than in his conservative brother Peter, a better writer and thinker who has fully rejected his youthful Trotskyism, not transmuted it into neo-conservatism as Hitch did. But Peter is pricklier and much less good as schmoozing than Hitch was. He hasn’t attached himself to a powerful clique and propagandized for it, so he wouldn’t have departed on a wave of eulogy and affection if he’d died instead.

I don’t think Hitch deserved the eulogy. The affection is another matter: that’s personal, not public. There was obloquy from some too, but although I disliked and disagreed with him I didn’t like the way he died. It’s wrong to want someone to have a painful and unpleasant death because you disagree with them. I don’t believe in free will and I don’t think that consciousness is responsible for our choices. It’s only consciousness that suffers, not the part of us that chooses.

Hitch bore his own suffering bravely and without abandoning his principles: “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does” (pg. 91). That’s not funny or original, but he did at least try. He tried to write well about dying too, but he didn’t succeed. I found that a relief, because cancer is an unpleasant and frightening thing. That’s a final unintended irony of a literary life that will, I predict, look smaller and more misguided with the years.


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Cigarettes and Al-Qaeda – a review of Hitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens (2010)

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