Howard Jacobson: Once the Ashes starts, I go to pieces

I go to sleep heavy with anxiety and premonition and get the news I’ve been dreading the moment I wake
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The Independent Online

I have tremor cordis on me. Dancing heart. I borrow the phrase from Leontes in The Winter's Tale, though in his case the cause is sexual jealousy and in mine it's far more serious. The Ashes. The first ball is bowled in Brisbane and my heart is dancing, but not for joy, not joy.

"O, that is entertainment my bosom likes not," Leontes says, the entertainment in question being the attention his wife is paying his best friend, "paddling palms and pinching fingers". That could also be a description of what's upsetting me, the latest Aussie fast-bowler fondling the ball, pinching his fingers around the seam, and then, when out of sheer brute colonial rage he takes another wicket, his teammates gathering him in their arms, "leaning cheek to cheek, meeting noses, kissing with inside lip".

Homoeroticists, the lot of them. But as I used to tell Australians in the days I lived among them, "Sport for you is just covert cottaging". Don't read this as homophobia. I was only exacting my revenge. They were the ones, back there in the 1960s, who loudly accused every fine-featured, flowing-haired Englishman, including me, of being a nancy boy. I was even attacked in a pub in Bondi for it once. Two small unsteady Aussie battlers, not unlike Peter Siddle in appearance – Peter Siddle being last Thursday's hat-trick taker – wrestling me to the ground and shouting "Poofter!" in my face. When, with very little effort, I threw them off – reader, I said they were small and unsteady – they retreated, musing darkly over what had occurred. "These bloody poofters are getting stronger," one told the other, as though he had encountered some terrifying new Darwinian ascendancy of the poofter-gene. "Too right," his friend agreed. Who knows, that could have been the psycho-sociological moment in the history of antipodean sexuality when the Australian man decided to go with the flow and what he couldn't defeat, embrace.

Not that any of this explains my dancing heart the minute another Ashes series gets under way in Australia. And to be honest I can't fathom it myself. I can live with England capitulating to India or Sri Lanka. I am not on the line when New Zealand does us over. I can even lose equably to South Africa. And although my pulses race wherever England plays Australia it's only when England plays Australia over there that I truly go to pieces. Which makes me wonder if it's the time difference that's really troubling me, the fact that transmission of the match doesn't start until I go to bed, so that if I don't stay up to watch it live – and I am not a masochist on that scale – I go to sleep heavy with anxiety and premonition and get the news of the debacle I've been dreading the moment I wake. Waking is a tristful business for the man who reflects. If one doesn't wake to disappointment one wakes to shame. Until I actually saw it written down I thought that Freud's essay Mourning and Melancholia was actually Morning and Melancholia. So the morning, for men like me, is already hard to take even before the latest score comes in. Thus, the England cricket team's performance is just one more confirmation of the agony of existence.

What makes this an incomplete explanation is the fact that I felt no better when I was over there and watched Test matches live. Of the grounds I visited, the greatest – as far as crowds, exhilaration and, for me, sadness, went – was Melbourne. It's to the MCG you go for the Boxing Day Test, gripping your picnic hamper which contains sandwiches made from the previous day's Christmas turkey, cold pies, cans of beer, a bottle of chardonnay semillon, maybe some leftover pavlova, more cans of beer – adult Australian males, if you can find any at the Boxing Day Test, call them "tinnies" – and another couple of bottles of chardonnay semillon. You get the idea. By lunch you're pissed blind. That's to say they are. What they do with the urine with which they don't scruple there and then to fill their empty cans no reader of this column will want to know. But checking to be sure you are not sitting below one of the more notoriously urine-fixated bays is a necessary precaution at the MCG.

No wonder I go away feeling sad, you must think. But in fact I arrive feeling sad. It can only, therefore, have something to do with the nature of the sporting contest itself. In the end, no matter who wins, the struggle to prevail is a depressing feature of life and a depressing spectacle. I know that millions of people around the world believe differently and can't wait to see their team in action, but it's my contention that they only think they believe differently. Watch a crowd leaving a football stadium and you see only two emotions: the gloom that follows a loss and the sense of anti-climax that follows a victory. Yes, there's cheering and chanting and embracing, and often a half-hankering for violence – because you have to take your win out on somebody – but it isn't joy or even satisfaction. Satisfaction is a quieter emotion. What you see in a crowd of people whose team has won is a desperate need for confirmation, each person seeking in the other the evidence of a happiness he cannot find in himself.

Reader, we have been fed a pack of lies. In order that we should go on striving without knowing what it is we're striving for, the gladiatorial illusion is dandled before our tired eyes. Beating people is good for us, we're told. This illusion was raised again at Prime Minister's Questions last Wednesday when Cameron and Miliband crossed swords – see what I mean – over the issue of sport in schools, each accusing the other's party of not doing enough to encourage our podgy young to get off their mobile phones for half an hour a day and run about. More than that – only two out of five children were currently playing any competitive sport, Cameron said, as though he had uncovered a scandal for which Labour must take sole responsibility, and fewer still were competing with other schools.

So? Do they bear the scars, our young, of never having competed with other schools? If they want to know what they're missing let them turn on the television in the morning and get the score from Brisbane. This is what they're missing – the body's whole sap sunk, the blood souring in the veins, the heart dancing, but not for joy, not joy.