Giving the game away

The column: As a young man, Howard Jacobson was faced with a life- defining decision - sporting prowess versus academia. Even now, he's not sure he got it entirely right
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Back in town briefly - I'd like to say for the start of the cricket season and in order to watch Manchester United crown itself in glory, but in truth I'm back for table tennis. For table tennis-related matters anyway, not the least of which being a bit of pre-publicity for my new novel The Mighty Walzer, the story of one man's thwarted ambition to be the greatest table tennis player the world has ever known.

Autobiographical? In the sense that I too once wanted to be the greatest table tennis player the world has ever known, yes. But Oliver Walzer's failure to make it as a ping-pong contender, or to make it as anything else much, come to that, is tragic; whereas no one would ever suppose there was anything remotely tragic about me. So not entirely autobiographical, no. Even if I really did have class there as a player 40 years ago - not just potential but class - and to this day cannot look at my once-powerful forearms and supple wrists without being overtaken by a profound sense of waste and loss. O, the pity of it, Iago!

But Othello only lost a wife. Whereas I wasted the whole world.

It was because table tennis was thought to be a safe game that my parents originally encouraged me to play it. I say parents, but to be honest it was only my mother who worried for my safety. Although no sportsman himself, I think my father would have preferred a son who wasn't stretchered off the field within the first minute of every game of rounders and who didn't cover his head with his hands whenever a cricket ball threatened to land near him. "Why are you so frightened of balls?" he used to ask me in the park, knocking me over with a balloon. "I'm not frightened of balls per se," I told him. "Only hard ones." My mother understood that. Hence table tennis. No one got hurt playing table tennis. No one could be damaged by a ping-pong ball. Winded, yes. Seriously injured, no.

But there, of course, she was wrong. Table tennis broke my heart. Firstly because my prowess as a player went unrecognised - for who, apart from other exponents of the game, has ever admired excellence in ping-pong? And secondly because I lost my nerve and never became the champion I might have been. Sex got in the way. Not actual sex. In those days, boys of 14 didn't have actual sex. Running away with a teacher three times your age didn't come in until I was already three times the age of any teacher worth running away with. In my time sex simply meant thinking about sex. When we gathered in the school playground and asked one another whether we'd had sex the night before, we didn't mean with another person. And imaginary sex inhibits ping-pong more than most other activities, because ping-pong is already a sort of imaginary sport itself. You disappear inside your own head to play it. Table tennis, at least as we knew it in the Fifties, didn't get you out of yourself - I think that's what I'm saying. And neither did sex.

O levels, too, were a distraction. If I wasn't going to make it as the greatest table tennis player the world had ever known, I intended to make it as the greatest taker of O levels. I took 70 subjects, including needlework and home economics to spite my father. And passed them all? Of course. Every one with an "A" grade. But O levels were no more an aphrodisiac than ping-pong. Did girls stop in the street when I went past to whisper hotly in one another's ears, "There's Howard Jacobson, he's got 70 O levels, all of them with distinction"? No, they did not.

But by that time I'd lost the art of ping-pong. Couldn't do it any more. Couldn't remember where to put my legs. Couldn't play a defensive stroke and then make it back to the table in time for the return. Couldn't care.

Some of the old yearnings return unexpectedly, though, even now. A couple of days ago I knocked-up with my friend Charles Sprawson, the swimmer. This is not the first time I've reported for this newspaper on games of table tennis with Sprawson. The last occasion was when he faced down the Nation of Islam who were holding a World Congress in the very room in Brixton where Charles had booked an hour on the table. Sorry, they'd told us, come back another time. But when Charles asked them to give him one good reason why the Nation of Islam should stop him playing ping-pong they capitulated. This time we went to a Leisure Centre in Camberwell instead of Brixton - cowardice on my part, I'm afraid: I couldn't bear another head-to-head with activists - and this time we were able to play without incident.

Almost without incident. In Camberwell the table is set up alongside the netball court, and when we arrived for our game seven middle-aged and three positively elderly ladies were on the court dancing to the records of Edmundo Ross. Now Charles Sprawson and I both happen to have a weakness for Edmundo Ross. An age thing, partly. We are both men who remember the rumba. But also a romantic thing. See a lady, of whatever age, dancing to Edmundo Ross and you want to partner her. See ten ladies having to dance with one another on a netball court in Camberwell at 11.30 in the morning, not a man between them, and your heart breaks.

"You'd get better exercise down here," the whitest-haired dancer called out to us.

"And you'd have more fun," another said.

All at once we realised that they were as sorry for us as we were for them. Two middle-aged men reduced to playing ping-pong in Camberwell at 11.30 in the morning. Though what they thought was sad about that I am unable to imagine