Miles Kington: Talk about anything, just don't mention the World Cup

Bowls is played on a lovely green lawn, but the French play boules on a mixture of earth, leaves and the odd Gauloise dog-end - their natural terrain
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The Independent Online

"Did you see the match between...?" started the Major, as he came into the pub.

"Ssssh, you fool!" said the man with the dog. "No World Cup talk! Remember?"

It was true. Someone in the pub had said we ought to see if we could get through at least the first week of the World Cup without mentioning it, on payment of a fine of a round. Everyone had agreed.

"I wasn't going to talk about the World Cup," said the Major. "I was going to ask if you had seen the final of the French Open."

We should have included the French Open in the ban as well, just to make it a sport-free week, but we had forgotten that the Major operates about a week behind everyone else.

"He's absolutely right," said the resident Welshman, from his corner. "It was a classic encounter between two opposite types. Federer, the cool, smooth, stylist, the dandy, the philosopher-poet. Nadal, the wild fireball, the Spanish gypsy, the unquenchable youth. It was Classicism v Romanticism. It was head v heart. It was thought against instinct. You don't often see the two sides of human personality so aptly symbolised on the tennis court."

"And who won?" said the lady with the red hairdo and green highlights. (She's back on the Pimm's.)

"I don't know," confessed the Welshman. "I was so enthralled with the dichotomy that I didn't want either side to win and switched off near the end."

"And do you want to know who won?" said the Major.

"Go on, tell me."

"Nadal, your gypsy boyo."

The Welshman swore. "Damn! I had £10 on Federer to beat him."

"But you always say you're dead against gambling!" said the red lady.

"I am," said the Welshman. "I don't go to a bookie's. I do it internally. I bet myself £10. I do it in my head, against myself."

"And when you lose, do you pay up?"

"No. I roll over the loss to the next bet, internally."

"And how do things stand at the moment?"

"I am £17,000 down," said the Welshman dolefully.

"Good God, man! At £10 a bet, how did you ever get £17,000 down?"

"I went a bit mad last year and put £10,000 on the Aussies to win the Ashes," said the Welshman, with dignity.

"Blinded by the desire to see the English beaten, I suppose," said the red lady.

"Who isn't?" said the Welshman.

"Did you lay a mental bet against the English playing the Aussies at rugby just this last weekend, then?" said the Major.

"Certainly not," said the Welshman. "I don't take mental bets on a dead cert. The English had no hope. I didn't want to take advantage of them."

"Well," said the man with the dog, "unlike the Welsh, at least the English qualified for the..."

The words "World Cup" almost appeared on his lips, but he stopped in time.

"What I was going to say about the French Open was nothing about the Spanish brat Nadal," said the Major, "or Mr Roger 'Oh-So-Perfect' Federer, but about the surface of the court. They keep calling it clay. I know what clay looks like. It's deep and grey and wet and you make pots out of it. That red stuff. It's not clay. So what is it?"

"It's what the French have got because they can't grow grass properly," said the Welshman. "Because all proper games were invented in the British Isles, where grass grows easily, they're all played on grass. In Britain, bowls is played on a lovely green lawn. But the French play their equivalent game, boules, on a mixture of earth, leaves and the occasional Gauloise dog-end, which is their natural terrain. That red stuff is probably the same, just cleaned up for the occasion."

While we were all thinking about this, the door opened and an Australian visitor came in. "Hey, did anyone see the Aussies thrash the Japanese on Monday?" he said. He was a bit surprised when he found he was paying for drinks all round.