The shame of the game

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The Independent Online
SPORT has a lot to answer for. The most significant feature of the Mellorama drama was not the actress, the PLO, the LPO, the icecreams, nor even the Spanish plumber: it was, true or false, that Chelsea strip.

Toe-sucking is one thing, a keen interest in watching sport quite another. Leaders should be doers, not voyeurs. Do sensible, rational, intelligent people attach enormous importance to completely trivial and essentially meaningless events over which they have absolutely no control? They do not. Oh, no.

I suppose it is possible to put up some kind of argument for cricket, the usual guff about Englishness and elegance, intellect and strict decorum, but not since they picked Gatting instead of Gower.

Football, though: do me a favour. How can any serious-minded person possibly take an interest in football? Freddie Ayer? He was a logical positivist. Albert Camus? Camus was a goalkeeper. Besides, neither of them supported Chelsea. How can you trust the judgement of anyone who supports Chelsea? Would you entrust the guidance of this country to a Chelsea supporter? Listen, you have.

Think about it. Anyone who supports Chelsea must have thought, at some stage, that Kerry Dixon should play for England. And some of us still remember Bonetti in Mexico. That's Major. That was Mellor. Our man at the FO in Europe, Garel-Jones, supports Watford. Watford] There's subtlety for you. And the Chief Whip supports Ipswich. They ought to get him to work on size of the gates.

And it's not as if the mistake hasn't been made before. Harold Wilson was ready for the Big Red Card from the moment he started pushing his adherence to Huddersfield Town and comparing himself to a deep-lying centre-forward, when the the model of that role was Alfredo di Stefano, who was not only foreign, but Argentinian to boot, and bald. A lot of people blamed the donkey jacket for Michael Foot's failure, but you try asking around about Plymouth Argyle.

But the real truth of it is that people don't really like to see our leaders relaxing. It confuses us, removes the mystique, the myth that they are unceasing in their vigilance on our behalf, far too busy for, and temperamentally opposed to, frivolous pleasures. We believe that the maintenance of dignity at all times is the price of self-importance.

I have never been sure which ditched Ted Heath, what he did to symphonies with that baton, or the boating. I suspect the latter, because of the dignity factor, which is maintained in conducting, at least in photographs. But when he was boating he was wearing a guernsey, and we all remember what being pictured in pullovers did for David Owen, David Steel and the Alliance.

Margaret Thatcher understood this very well. Her holidays were famously brief and she never wore pullovers. The one appearance in trousers was not a success. But it went deeper than that. Not many people know that, in her early years, Margaret was a big all-in wrestling fan, a particular devotee of Billy Two Rivers, the Red Indian grappler, and was to be seen regularly at Finchley Baths in the front row, swinging that trademark handbag in excitement. As her career progressed, however, she reluctantly curtailed her interest, recognising the dangers, although she still practised the occasional throw on Bernard Ingham in the privacy of No 10.

Stanley Baldwin was a keen ice skater, even though he found it difficult to keep his pipe alight travelling at speed. But he too realised that a nifty double salchow did not sit well with an image based on his famous slogan, 'Safety First'. Gladstone's passion for the gee-gees was a far greater secret than his midnight perambulations in Soho, something Mellor would do well to ponder on. But not all sacrifices were necessary: Lord Curzon never achieved the highest office, despite giving up his beloved Saturday afternoons spent watching Featherstone Rovers at Post Office Road. Harold Nicolson missed him dreadfully.

Such accumulated wisdom eluded John Major and his cronies, and they are paying for it. Still, it could have been worse. They might have been into motor racing. Grand prix fans, I presume, do it in those baseball hats and anoraks with all the labels on.

Marcus Berkmann is away.

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