Of the pleasures incident to the literary life, one of the most innocent is being able to say – not boastfully, just with quiet satisfaction – that you’ve read everything a writer has written.
It’s easier, of course, with some writers than with others. Read Wuthering Heights and a few poems and that’s Emily Brontë done. Jane Austen isn’t too trying either, but don’t forget the juvenilia which gives you the opportunity to see that Tristram Shandy was important to her only until she grew up.
My best effort is every novel by Charles Dickens and ditto, almost, Thomas Hardy. Where I fell down with Hardy was over A Laodicean. There were two reasons I stumbled. The first was that I had never heard a good word said about it. The second was the title. A Laodicean, for God’s sake! A Laodicean, as Hardy intends the term, is someone who blows hot and cold in his convictions – Laodicea having been a byword in the early Catholic church for religious tepidity.
Another title for Hardy’s novel, therefore, could have been The Lukewarm. Quite a grabber, that. “If you read no other novel this year, read The Lukewarm. It will leave you quivering with indifference.”
It’s an unquestioned assumption of our society that lack of enthusiasm is a vice. What we look for in our politicians and sportsmen and thinkers – indeed, in all branches of what we might as well call show business – is zest.
Post your attractions on a dating site and you won’t get far describing yourself as Passionless from Plumstead. Even “cool” doesn’t really mean apathetic. It isn’t cool not to care about anything much, nor is it cool to be a waverer. The cool care passionately, to take just one example, about the sunglasses they wear.
But as an overwrought Wimbledon draws to a close, and World Cup fever reaches its climax, and cruelly misinformed Muslim boys pour out of Swansea hell-bent on avenging something that someone has told them the West has done to them, only to end up killing other Muslim boys similarly misinformed, isn’t there a case to be made for half-heartedness? Reader, it isn’t just the planet that’s overheating. It’s us.
I don’t speak as one who understands nothing of ideological zeal. As a young academic I waged holy war against colleagues who thought the novels of George Meredith superior to the novels of George Eliot. And when it comes to sport, I am capable of something which, if you can’t exactly call it fervour, is in the ball park of passing interest. For at least two hours after Phil “The Power” Taylor was knocked out in last year’s World Darts Championships I couldn’t bring myself to uncork the bottle of expensive shiraz I’d been saving. But no one actually died in the George Meredith vs George Eliot wars, and I don’t wear a shirt with Phil “The Power” Taylor’s name on the back. There’s interest and then there’s interest.
Why, for example, must those commentating on Wimbledon routinely put the word “adoring” before the word “fans”? Not everyone lucky enough to be at Centre Court is a fan of any particular player, let alone an adoring one. Many will simply be enjoying high-quality tennis. Yes, a few will grab gratefully at the sweaty towels or putrid armbands that some players throw into the crowd when they’ve won, but I saw one of these distasteful items drop into the lap of a dispassionate spectator the other day and his disgust was every bit the equal of what mine would have been in his position.
Who are you to suppose I will be grateful for your largesse, his expression said. Who? Well, the commentary team could answer that. “Royalty watching royalty,” the most sycophantic of them genuflected vocally, as Federer cast an eye in the direction of William and Kate. I am no republican, reader, but do we really need more royalty than we already have?
It was fervour of this servile sort, anyway, that deluded the nation into thinking Andy Murray was going to win Wimbledon again this year after three no more than workmanlike performances against untesting opposition. A cooler appraisal would have told us, and maybe even told Murray, that he was up to his old play-safe, patacake antics again and would buckle as he used to when the going got tough. Thus does hyperbole, when it’s not in the service of scepticism, make fools of us all.
There was, you would have thought, sufficient scepticism about English football not to lead us into a comparably false optimism, yet still “adoring” fans carted themselves all the way to Brazil wearing shirts with their heroes’ names on their backs and expectation agitating hearts which, for all I know, had been calibrated to beat at the same rate as Rooney’s. Leaving aside the question of how they could find anyone in the English team to heroise, what is any grown man doing in a football shirt? Come to that, what are adults doing painting their faces the colours of their national flags? Hasn’t slavery been abolished? Does the excitement of sport justify subservience?
“Too hot, too hot,” mutters Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. He isn’t watching sport, unless you call imagining your best friend overdoing appreciation of your wife a sport, but he could be describing the current condition of our vocabulary. Just as Murray on form is called “Magnificent!” so his defeat is greeted with the word “Surrender!”. Our Prime Minister, too, cannot suffer a setback that isn’t ignominious. “Humiliation!” the front pages blazed when he was Junckered. Is it no longer possible simply to lose?
Let me be clear: contest excites me too. I am loving watching Wimbledon and the World Cup. I deny no man his gifts. I deny no man his religion either. But the world would be more sensible, the words we use more rational, the wars we fight less unremitting, if we cared a little less. Tomorrow, after watching the men’s final on television, I will start Thomas Hardy’s A Laodicean.Reuse content