DJ Taylor: Jolly good sports

The past really is a foreign country ... a place where cricketers never cheat, homophobia is commonplace, and a decent education is just for the few

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Each summer, together with the unreliable weather forecasts and the outdoor music festivals, come the rows over gamesmanship in sport.

Though it ended in a blaze of collective amity and shaken hands, the second Ashes Test was bedevilled by spats of this kind. Should Ravi Bopara have instantly walked, even though there seemed to be some doubt as to whether the ball by which he was subsequently given out had carried? The First Test bore a similar freight of recrimination. Were England guilty of time-wasting as, desperate to preserve their 10th wicket in the final hour of the game, they called for the physio and had the 12th man amble on to to the field to deliver supposedly vital messages?

From the sports-minded literary journalist's point of view, the routine altercations over whether X meant to barge into Y or collapsed on top of him by the merest accident are a godsend, as there are half a dozen sports liable periodically to erupt in this way, and the public's interest in them is correspondingly intense. Three summers back, having written a book about the decline of amateurism in sport, I found that each successive incident – a cricketer booting the ball away in pique, a tennis player grunting beyond 90 decibels, an athlete larging it on ephedrine – brought a summons to file a thousand words or so on the supposed dilution of the sporting spirit.

Curiously enough, the most piteous cries usually come from people who, 30 or 40 years ago, were guilty of sharp practice themselves. One of the loudest critics of the now disgraced tycoon Sir Allen Stanford's 20/20 series, for example, was the former England captain Tony Greig, whose 1970s get-together with the Australian media magnate Kerry Packer began the commercialisation of cricket in the first place. In the same way, one of the heartiest disparagers of the Bopara gambit was the former Australian captain Richie Benaud, who, prodded by Channel Five's head cricket pundit, Mark Nicholas, offered a rhapsodic defence of on-field chivalry. Now, Benaud in his day was well-known for holding up play if it looked as if he might lose. Aficionados often reminisce about a match at Northampton in the late 1950s when, with defeat looming, Benaud's resort to the three-field-changes-an-over strategy had him barracked by the crowd. Still, to stay with cricketing jargon, a late call is better than none at all.

***

In London on Tuesday I found myself staring at the Tube adverts for the National Portrait Gallery show which has commissioned such opinion-formers as Sir Elton John and the novelists Alan Hollingsworth and Sarah Waters to come up with a series of "Gay Icons". How wonderful, I told myself, that Londoners live in a city so liberated from ancient bigotry that this kind of statement becomes, if not a matter of routine, then something at which the average Tube traveller bats not an eyelid.

An hour later I was walking across Hampstead Heath with an American friend, neither of us too sure of our bearings and keen to find a path that would take us back to the station. All at once the crash of feet through yielding bracken and the sound of upraised voices advertised the onrush of joggers. "Let's ask them," my friend suggested. Instantly there hove into view three enormous gentlemen, rather resembling ex-boxers on furlough from the gym, exchanging Cockernee banter as they ran. They were affability itself – "Want to go to the Tube, do yer mate? That's the way, then." Then, as we were about to set off, the tail-ender, in the manner of one who tells you that your brake-light is defective, sang out: "I'd be careful dahn there, mate. Place is full of queers." And so we trudged on, reflecting as we went on how wonderful it is for Londoners to live in a city so free from ancient bigotry, etc etc.

***

The main complaint that the critics seem to be levelling at Desperate Romantics, BBC2's pre-Raphaelite bonkbuster, is not that the producers are keener on the pant of hot, Rossetti-era breath than what got painted on the canvases, but that none of the actors looks or behaves in the least like Victorian artists. Instead of plausible approximations of Holman Hunt and co, what we have is a succession of modern faces in period costume whose every gesture and intonation betrays the fact that they belong not to the mid 19th century but to the early 21st. Hollywood, it should be said, is even feebler in its attempts at verisimilitude: the three babes on the DVD box of The Other Boleyn Girl bear as much resemblance to Tudor gentlewomen as a wolverine to a wolf.

You sometime feel that the debate about filmic representations of past time, once so hotly contested by the critics, is just not worth pursuing any more. In most cases all that emerges is simple patronage, in which the past is carefully recalibrated to suit modern neuroses and anything not thought relevant to a contemporary audience is simply thrown out of the window. (Compare this approach wih Hilary Mantel's current novel Wolf Hall, whose strangeness stems from her conviction that – well I never! – 16th-century people weren't really like us at all.) The public apparently wants ripped bodices and emotional shorthand, and that is what it will get.

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to recreate historical landscapes without ploughing the standard EastEnders-go-Tudor furrow. I remember being mesmerised by the Polish director Walerian Borowczyk's Blanche (his last straight film before the decidedly dodgier Immoral Tales and The Beast), on the grounds that its characters – old men with faces carved out of wood; delicate, pale-complexioned girls – actually looked as if they lived in the 14th century.

Peter Flannery's Civil War era TV film The Devil's Whore played the same trick. It would be a good idea, consequently, if TV producers engaged in this kind of work were compelled to issue prefatory statements of intent, either reading "This is a serious attempt to recreate past time" or "This is a bit of fun to boost the ratings". It might not do much for audience figures, but at least the viewers would know where they stood.

***

Huge vats of ink were expended on the former cabinet minister Alan Milburn's survey of social inequality, Unleashing Aspiration, published early last week. Mr Milburn's report, which focused on the age-old problem of encouraging upward social mobility, getting children from poor homes into universities and widening access to such redoubts of upper-middle-class privilege as the judiciary, was generally praised for its insights but not thought to contain very much in the way of solutions.

As a grateful beneficiary of upward social mobility – great-grandfather lost in the mists of time, grandfather an electrician – I am always fascinated by studies of this kind. So what gave the Taylors their social break? Answer: the scholarship that my father won to Norwich School in 1932. Naturally, grammar schools were (and are) an immensely clumsy and divisive way of shuffling the educational pack – an ex-headmaster friend of mine used to say that the worst morning of the year was the one in which you handed out the tell-tale envelopes – but at least they did something to help the bright, industrious and poorly off. A government that really meant business about helping children from the lowest rungs of society to achieve things could start by selecting the cleverest 50,000 it could find and paying for them to be educated at independent schools. The other solution, alas, is even more incremental, for it would involve taking on the whole lowest-common-denominator, happy-to-be-thick assumptions on which most modern mass culture is based. But a cabinet minister who leapt up occasionally to shout "Big Brother is rubbish – why not read a book?" or "Xboxes won't get you into college" would probably achieve even more than Mr Milburn and his report.

***

The writer Gordon Burn, news of whose death was announced last week, was a grammar school boy from a poor home. Novelist, art critic, investigative journalist, Burn will probably be remembered above all for Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son (1984), his book about the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. What separated it from practically every other true-crime exposé on the block was Burn's ability to build up a picture of the crucible in which Sutcliffe was forged, the tight-knit Northern world in which he grew up and its attitude to women. Like Hilary Mantel and Peter Flannery and perhaps even Walerian Borowczyk in his pre-porn days, his aim was to see things as they were, or may have been, rather than in the shape that a soft contemporary audience usually prefers them. It is a terrible shame that he is dead.

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