Television (Review) / Armchairs strike a blow against the locker-room

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The Independent Culture
IF SPORT is poetry in motion then what is poetry about sport? Slow-motion, mostly, to judge from the visual images assembled by On the Line (BBC 2) to accompany its 12 sporting poems. Slow- motion, too, because language mostly aspires to hold the moment in suspension, to find some verbal means for inspecting a flourish of physical grace more closely. And, like slow-motion in film, poetry about sport is a worshipful thing, most often adoring in its gaze and envious of the attendance figures. I confess I turned on with a slightly sulky expectation of having to go along with raptures I didn't quite feel.

So it was a shrewd move to place Wendy Cope so high in the film's batting order, with a tight little poem about the miseries of compulsory sport. The line 'Oh no, not him, sir, he's no good' vividly recalled the miseries of being obliged to fulfil your team-mates' moaned predictions, while the refrain 'The joys of sporting brotherhood / Are not for me. I spoil their scheme' might just as well have applied to this poem itself, one for anyone who has ever stood there on the outfield surreptitiously trying to read a novel.

Not all the other poems were entirely besotted, either. Attila the Stockbroker's 'A Sugared Dish' went in low for Rupert Murdoch ('He's fishing for the human mind and football is the bait') and Linda France took a rather unsisterly swipe at the sort of fillies who attend polo matches.

From the others you could assemble a very rough rule of thumb about sporting poetry - that team sports tend to inspire better popular verse, cheerleading for the virtues of mass emotion, while individual sports make for better poetry. One of the worst lines here came from Brendan Kennelly's hymn of praise to Jack Charlton, which unwisely tried to rhyme 'go fishun' with 'the Big 'Un'. But I imagine this work would still go down better in the pub than the one which contained the best line, Andrew Greig's poem 'Solo Climber'. 'Place your hands and feet like bets,' he wrote, a phrase that nicely caught the rock climber's flirtation with uncertain odds.

The last time we saw Robert Perkins on our screens he brought off the remarkable achievement of hitch-hiking through Scotland with a 15ft canoe. You have to be either very knowing or very innocent to attempt such a thing and there isn't much doubt about which side of the wire Perkins falls on. 'Those are loons] That's my bird]' he exclaimed deliriously at one point in Travels with My Camera (C4). It didn't come as much surprise when he confessed to having spent a year in the maximum security ward of a mental hospital.

While this holy fool was paddling through the tundra, capturing scenes of vacant beauty and mild human comedy (he erects a plastic flamingo in front of his tent every night), his girlfriend was back home struggling with cancer and chemotherapy. At first you felt a bit indignant with Perkins for having legged it, but you reconsidered as she talked. 'I used to think that physical death meant the end of life,' she said. 'That life on earth was life and that physical death was not life. Now I see them as all life.' It wouldn't take much exposure to this macrame of unknowing to send any of us into the wilderness and, in any case, it seemed likely that Perkins might have unravelled if he had stayed at home. 'Am I nutso?' he asked towards the end of his journey, as a lone bird wailed on the soundtrack. 'Does that sound like my name, Rob?' It did, which he took as a sign that it was time to go home. Sweetly, because you had grown fond of both of them, the film ended with their marriage, in the rain under a naked tree.