Brian Viner: Wimbledon is weird – that's why it sums up England perfectly

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

In common with just about nobody I know, I rather enjoyed Cliff Richard's impromptu concert in the drizzle, on Centre Court back in 1996.

In media circles especially it is practically holy writ, if Sir Cliff will forgive me for taking holiness in vain, to use adjectives such as "excruciating" before any reference to his singalong that day, but I thought it was rather sweet.

Incidentally, I once went to Sir Cliff's Weybridge mansion to interview him for a new magazine feature called "Out To Lunch". My brief was to interview him over lunch in a nearby restaurant, to which his people had agreed, yet when I arrived his assistant informed me that he would prefer to stay at home. He then bounced into the grand drawing room, and told me that he hadn't eaten lunch since 1964, when Minnie Caldwell in Coronation Street referred to "that chubby Cliff Richard". Instead he asked his assistant to bring us coffee and biscuits. So "Out To Lunch With Cliff Richard" turned out to be "In For Coffee and Jammie Dodgers With Cliff Richard". And he didn't even have a Jammie Dodger.

So, I know what a weirdo Sir Cliff can be, but at least he's our weirdo. And in that sense he is the perfect embodiment of Wimbledon fortnight itself. It's unique and strange, but it's uniquely and strangely ours; indeed, it's hard to think of any sporting event anywhere in the world so utterly representative of the country that hosts it. Yesterday, walking across Wimbledon Park golf course, currently deployed as a car park, I watched a gentleman of advanced years, wearing his club blazer and tie and almost certainly a retired lieutenant-colonel, more than likely president of the Henley-on-Thames Pelargonium Society, gingerly unfolding himself out of a tiny little Smart car. And I thought, only in England.

It is a phrase which comes to mind at least 20 times a day at Wimbledon, but of course the All England Club during these championships represents only a particular aspect of England. An honorary steward of my acquaintance yesterday directed me to an item in the newsletter circulated daily among the HSs, as they call themselves, proudly pointing out that the HS tie is similar to those worn by Old Etonians, Old Harrovians, and alumni of Pembroke College, Cambridge. This arose because a (doubtless very posh) woman taking her seat on Centre Court said to an HS, "Are you all Old Etonians, then?" To which the HS replied, "Not quite all, madam".

That all this is a particular brand of Englishness is lost on many of the foreigners walking the hallowed grounds, who love their polite daily welcome over the public address system by the nicely spoken BBC broadcaster Tony Adamson, advising them to drink lots of water, and manifestly think that the entire nation grinds to a halt for a strawberry tea at four o'clock every afternoon. Maybe the daily welcome should be broadcast not by Tony Adamson but by Romford-raised, recovering alcoholic Tony Adams, whose time at Her Majesty's Pleasure was not spent at a Buckingham Palace garden party. If nothing else it would undermine the assumption that we all talk BBC English.

Still, some foreigners have the opposite misconception, assuming that certain things at the All England Club are particular to Wimbledon, and do not apply to the country at large. Take the two elderly women from the American Mid-west, whose first time in England this is. Until the hostess at their bed-and-breakfast accommodation put them right earlier this week, they assumed that the word "queue" was exclusive to Wimbledon, that its very definition was "people standing in line for several hours to get into the world's greatest tennis tournament". Bless their hearts. I wish they'd been here in 1996, to hear Cliff singing "Congratulations". They'd have loved that.

Fabio's loss was my gain

Is it just me, or are others feeling a blissful sense of weightlessness now that England are out of the World Cup? In 1998, 2002 and 2006 I took elimination hard, watching the rest of the tournament rather like a chap might watch his still-beloved ex-wife in the arms of another.

This time, I'm watching it more like a chap might watch the ex-wife who made his life a misery tormenting somebody else. I feel liberated, relieved of stress and the daily horror of speculating what might be in Fabio Capello's mind. Maybe it's something to do with the manner of England's exit, so miserably emphatic that the "what if?" question hardly applies. Nevertheless, let me raise it. What if Lampard's goal had stood and England had registered a narrow win? Then we'd be playing Argentina today, watching Gareth Barry trying to shackle Lionel Messi. I'm telling you, we're well out of it.

The very best of Best

Opinions vary on who was the greatest footballer ever to grace the World Cup. Most say Pele, but plenty say Maradona, and some say Di Stefano or Cruyff. There is a much more solid consensus when it comes to the identity of the greatest player never to play in the World Cup, and my former colleague John Roberts, who ghostwrote his newspaper column, has just written a book about him. Sod This, I'm Off To Marbella is John's absorbing account of how and why George Best decided to quit football. It is published by Sport Media, priced £9.99.