Ping Pong A love story

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I knew I was ready to write the Great Ping-Pong Novel - its actual title is The Mighty Walzer - the moment I stopped being squeamish about the word Ping-Pong. "Still doing your Ping-Pong, Howard?" ignorant relations used to ask me, waving an imaginary bat in my direction. How I hated hearing the sport to which I was sacrificing my adolescence demeaned in that way. Ping-Pong is what you play in the basement of your Bournemouth hotel when it's too wet to go out and you don't have what it takes to inveigle someone back to your room. It's as ignominiously prattish as train-spotting, except that it's for two and so might end in a giggle. You hold the bat as though it's alien debris, swat at thin air, tread on the ball and fall about laughing. Ping-Pong. Why not just call it Ha-Ha and have done?

What I played was table tennis, a game faster than thought and crueller than torture. We each play it our own way, of course, we few who play the real thing at all, but when I played there was no inconsequential merriment. Tears from my opponents, yes; but never tears of laughter. Not from me, either, however imperiously I won. What was there to laugh about? I meant to be the greatest table-tennis player - the greatest table- tennis exponent - the world had ever seen, and the outcome of that ambition would either be noble or tragic. Now that it has finally become clear to me that I'm unlikely to make it, I am reconciled to "Ping-Pong". Not to any mirthful aspect of the game, you must understand, but to one incontrovertible fact: I was good, the game was good, but the world will never change its mind - people who play table tennis lack grandeur.

No one held to this conviction more tenaciously than the headmaster of my grammar school. Every morning at assembly, between "Forty Years On" and "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", he would announce our several sporting accomplishments from the stage. Following in his older brother Tony's footsteps, Phil Snott had just been picked as third reserve goalkeeper (weather permitting) for Radcliffe Remedials "D" team. Applause for Phil and for the memory of Anthony Snott. Fielding as 13th man for Lower Crumpsall Catatonics, where he routinely worked of a weekend sucking the bails clean and spit-and-polishing the senior players' boxes (or it might have been vice-versa), Aidan Berk spilled only five catches at long-off, which was three fewer than he spilled the week before. Applause for Aidan Berk. And for me, begging your pardon, who played table tennis for Lancashire, who was twice Manchester Junior Champion, who was currently being trialled for England, and who owned one of the most feared forehand smashes in the country? Not a dicky bird. Not only no applause, no mention. Ping- Pong, you see. It was only Ping-Pong. And in the eyes of a headmaster of a little local grammar which modelled itself on Eton, Ping-Pong was to sport what George Formby's ukulele was to chamber music.

Between ourselves, I sometimes fancied I detected a hint of the old anti- you-know-what in this reluctance to give table tennis its dues. There is undoubtedly something rabbinic about the game, something cerebral and precisely textual, like chess - hence Bobby Fischer's love of table tennis - yet inappropriately brawny too, as when the rabbi rolls up his sleeves and lets you see how muscular he is. Certainly Jewish table tennis prospered in Manchester in my time, but that might just be another way of saying that table tennis, which in its parlour form was a North American invention, learnt its subtlety in Eastern Europe, in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Romania, and that many Jews brought the new sophisticated game with them when they fled those countries.

They were all pale, my table-tennis heroes, I remember that. They looked undernourished even by the standards of an undernourished age, wiser than sportsmen are supposed to look too, and of course profoundly pessimistic. It was precisely to acquire that air, to appear existentially dismayed and professorial before my time, that I chose to play table tennis seriously in the first place. But in that case I can hardly blame my headmaster if he was confused by my philosophic pallor, seeing it as the very antithesis to that mindless bodily sheen which is meant to characterize outdoor sportsmen proper.

In so far, then, as other table-tennis players thought as I did, you could say that we brought the charge of Ping-Pong on ourselves. Unlike our rich brothers in lawn tennis, or even our glamorously obscure brothers in real tennis, we deliberately refused the heroic. We kitted ourselves out like hill-walkers, with too many badges on our chests; we reprimanded ourselves between points with nursery ejaculations - "Come on Davo, you daft sod"; we took up position to receive serve like Pomeranians on heat, panting heavily and wiggling our backsides; we didn't eyeball our opponents; we didn't hurl our rackets; we didn't punch the air when we won or throw a tantrum when we lost. We didn't make a show of it, that's what it comes down to; we were too niggardly of soul to give good spectacle. Had people come to watch us play they would assuredly have been disappointed, but no one did come to watch us play because we made it impossible for them ever to find out where we were playing. Guess the venue for the British Open held earlier this year - the most important event in the country's table tennis calendar and once one of the most prestigious tournaments anywhere. Hopton-on-Sea. Where? You heard me - Hopton-on-Sea!

At least it was on sea and not in it, you may retort, but I doubt if that made any significant difference to the numbers. I don't recall ever having to go quite so close to leaving the country for a game of table tennis in my day, but we were no less adept at concealing ourselves. Every winter Wednesday or Thursday league night we would slip from our houses by the back doors, climb into a coughing grey Austin A40, and stutter into the bleak industrial fog-bound hinterland of Manchester - to Mather and Platt in Grimshaw Lane, Newton Heath; to Greengate and Irwell Rubber Company's Canteen in Salford 3; to Small and Parkes in Harpurhey; to Golden Shred Sports and Social Club, Ashton Hill Lane, Droylesden - where we would rub our hands in the cold, help wheel out a dilapidated table, go searching for the net, and try to calculate from the proximity of kitchens, whether or not there would be tea and biscuits after the match.

I did this for four or five years, from about the age of 12 to 16. The awkward age. It kept me out of mischief, my parents believed. They were right. You can't get up to any mischief playing table tennis, other than wiggling your rump while the other person's serving. But it didn't stop me dreaming mischief. Even though I knew it was impossible, that no lovely olive-eyed girl with sea-green ribbons in her hair and 14 O-levels would be waiting in a little collapsible wooden chair at Greengate and Irwell's, quivering in anticipation of my whipped forehand drive, I never once left the house without hoping against hope that she'd be there. The expectation kept me hungry for the game, stopped me falling into careless habits around my wardrobe, ensured that my shorts would always be creased and my socks always fresh. And the ensuing disappointment sharpened my play. Week after week I made the opposition suffer for her absence. Some nights I would put so much frustrated back spin on my drop shot that it would clear the net only to fall back sighing into it, like Tristan into the arms of Isolde. Plock, shhhhhhh. Not so much a table-tennis shot as a Liebestod. Irretrievable. Even the poor sucker on the other end of the table had to applaud. "Played, lad!" But only I knew who I was playing for, who was dying for whom.

When at last she did show up, for a cup match against CWS Biscuits in Hazlebottom Road, not all that far from where Aidan Berk dropped catches for Lower Crumpsall Catatonics, I was so taken aback I forgot to remove my tracksuit bottoms, and so agitated that my timing went to pieces. I addressed the ball on the drop instead of on the rise, I forgot to follow through, I never moved my feet. Feet! What feet? 21-16, 21-12 to the other guy, someone to whom I'd never once conceded more than 10 points in eight meetings in the league.

End of story, really. If you can't be a lover and a Ping-Pong player, aged 16, we all know which you choose. But now that I am past being either, I see that the dichotomy was false. Remembering Manchester Ping-Pong in the Fifties doesn't feel very different, anyway, from remembering my first innocent forays into love.

`The Mighty Walzer' Jonathan Cape, pounds 15.99