Howard Jacobson: Note to disaffected youth... Pick up a table tennis bat and strike a blow for world peace

Name one synchronised swimmer who has plotted to blow up an aircraft or fly into a tower block           If being obsessed with yourself because you are good at ping pong is the worst you do, is that so terrible?
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The Independent Online

My advice to fundamentalists, terrorists, gang-members, junk-drunk techno-children, friends of Blair, friends of Brown, and whoever else insists on making life difficult for themselves and uncomfortable for us - take up a minority sport.

In curling, handball, sumo wrestling, trampolining, table tennis and a thousand more activities so minority we have never even heard of them, lies the only hope of peace in a fractious world. Play a game that no one but you and three others want to play. Dream of glory where there is none.

Don't believe what some God of war wants you to believe. Don't covet what Sony wants you to covet. Find a corner that is just your own. Embrace absurdity. You won't make any money, you won't have adoring fans, but you will retain your innocence and thereby allow the rest of us to retain ours.

You disagree? Then tell me when you were last woken in the night by a croquet team going through your things. Name one synchronised swimmer who, to your certain knowledge, has ever plotted to blow up an aircraft or fly it into a tower block.

What convinces me that you cannot do the one and the other is that there isn't time. It is impossible to put in the hours a minority sport demands - buying and replenishing the equipment, finding out where the few of similar mind are gathered, travelling to tournaments in Anglesey and Wisbech, recovering from the disappointment of coming second or the anticlimax of coming first, explaining to other people what it is you actually play - and still harbour an active grievance against humanity.

I anticipate your objection. Doesn't the same apply to better known sports? Won't football keep you out of trouble? The answer to both questions is no. For a person truly never to be a threat to his fellows he has to step out of the glare even of reflected publicity; he has to be where things are not happening and know in his soul it is better there. Thugs and terrorists believe they can make a difference. They are idealists in their way.

Whoever plays a minority sport wraps himself in an irony too deep for idealism. He is engrossed in what does not matter, except to him. He leaves other people to get on with what matters likewise only to them. He does not want the world to be a better place. He is a true champion of the freedom of the individual.

Amid the orgiastic rehashings of September 11 on television last week: the recriminations, the soul-searching, the hellish prognostications - all of it, I don't doubt, necessary - one programme stood out: Ping Pong Planet, a film about table tennis made for BBC4.

The fact that I put in a modest appearance in this documentary affects in no part my estimation of it. Most times you show your face on telly you wish you hadn't. And it wasn't my contribution, anyway, that struck me as noteworthy.

At the heart of this history of a game most people on our side of the planet find ludicrous was a narrative of sublime incorruptibility - the story of Marty Reisman, once the greatest table tennis player in the world, but denied the world title everybody expected him to win by Hiroje Satoh, an unknown Japanese player wielding the first sponge bat the table tennis community had ever seen.

The cruelty of the sponge bat, when you first encountered it, was that it defeated you with your own skills. The faster you hit the ball, the faster it was returned. The more devious your spin, the more devious the spin you had to face. Think quickly and the sponge bat just as quickly thought your own thoughts back at you.

By this logic, to have beaten Satoh you would have needed to be a novice with no strokes at all. But nobody at the 1952 World Championships did beat Satoh. And of those who fell to his silent racquet, nobody has nursed the memory of it, created a mythology of lost innocence around it, or imagined one day changing what happened - not vengefully or violently, but simply by rewinding the spools of time to effect a different outcome - as Marty Reisman has.

I have mentioned Marty Reisman before in this column. This is partly because he rings me from New York in the early hours when I don't mention him in this column. And if there's one phone call you don't want to take before dawn, it's a call from a table tennis player. Nothing personal - it's simply that no table tennis player can speak on the phone without trying to wrong-foot the person he's speaking to. Two table tennis players and neither gets to put a sentence together, so determined is each to hit words past the other.

But, call or no call, after watching Ping Pong Planet I would not have been able to forbear mentioning Marty Reisman, because in Marty Reisman we have an example of how to live the good life.

Since 1952, Marty Reisman has troubled the world with this thought only: how can we turn the clock back on sponge and bring back the hard bat. He knows no one is interested in the metaphysics of this conundrum but the little band of men for whom table tennis, as it was once played, is the obsession it remains for him.

He also knows in his heart it will never happen. The year 1952 has been and gone. Table tennis will not now invite Marty Reisman to compete again for the world title using a racquet surface of his choosing. Nor, at 76, would he be strong enough to win it, even if the universe were suddenly to be made of hard bat. But the wanting and the hoping have kept him young; the readiness - to fly out tomorrow if the call comes - has kept him limber; the all-absorbing fantasy preserving him from the toxic distractions of our times.

The comedian Jackie Mason grew up with Reisman. "Marty's a tremendous egomaniac," he told me. "He's still intrigued with himself after 50 years. But I never saw him do a bad thing to anybody in his life. If being obsessed with yourself because you're good at ping pong is the worst thing you ever do - is that so terrible?'

Terrible? No, terrible is imagining God in the image of your will. Terrible is blowing up X because Y won't give you what you want. And Reisman wants to blow up nobody. He is a pacific man. As are all of us who play games of great skill and no consequence.

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