radio review

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The Independent Culture
Life is peculiarly galling for the non-sports fan at the moment. The football was bad enough; but then there was Wimbledon, and cricket, and motor-racing and golf, and now the Olympics. On top of the actual sports, we've had to put up with Paul Gascoigne's wedding, Will Carling's TV deals and Ian Botham's law-suit. And then there was the survey showing that managers are more inclined to give jobs to people who play competitive sport.

The desire to force sport down the throats of the uninterested and the assumption that not to be interested in sports is a sign of inadequacy are nothing new. The syndrome goes back at least as far as Dr Arnold of Rugby; indeed, it's arguable that public schools have been responsible for the phenomenon.

On Friday morning on Radio 4 a feature called Gabbitas and Thring trawled through the history of the celebrated scholastic agency which for the last century has been sending ill-qualified young gentlemen off to teach in public schools - among them Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Barnes Wallis, Evelyn Waugh and Jimmy Edwards. One theme was the agency's historic lack of interest in the academic achievements of its clients: the broadcaster Christopher Cook recollected an interview in the Sixties that revolved almost exclusively round where he had been to school. John Betjeman, likewise, remembered exaggerating his ability at games to get a job, and subsequently being humiliated at the nets.

To be fair, the obsession with sport was only one of the bizarre prejudices that distorted the firm's workings: John Gabbitas, the founder, harboured an irrational dislike of telephones - the firm did without them for years, and when they were finally installed it was out of Mr Gabbitas's earshot; another aversion, possibly even more disruptive, was towards his partner, Thring; they were reported to be rarely on speaking terms. He also had a strange prejudice against young men in thick-rimmed glasses, who were assumed to be dangerously left-wing. As a way of identifying socialist tendencies this couldn't have been altogether effective, given that WH Auden made it through the selection process - he was said to have given his pupils "a happy if unorthodox experience of public school".

All in all, a highly enjoyable portrait of a once-great institution; and a confirmation of an important truth: too much enthusiasm for sport is the sign of a defective character.

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