Philip Hensher: These little Toniblers set a fine example

Notebook: Blair is such a hero to Kosovan families that they are naming their sons after him

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One of the lesser-known hazards of international statesmanship happened to Tony Blair, the other day. He got off an aeroplane in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, to be greeted by nine cherubic boys.

They stood beneath a giant poster of our former leader, with the slogan “A Leader. A Friend. A Hero.” As the nine boys burst into a tuneful rendition of Michael Jackson’s “We Are The World”, it was explained to Mr Blair that since his intervention in the Kosovan conflict 10 years ago, he had become such a hero to Kosovan families that many of them had started naming their sons after him. These nine were only a small selection of the many juvenile Tonis and Toniblers currently running around the Balkans.

This very funny but also rather touching story made me wonder whether, in fact, there are large parts of the world in which children are routinely named after visiting Labour politicians. Is Edmily-Band a favourite girls’ name in Sierra Leone? Do the young mothers of Tamil Nadu consider Hari Ethar Man for their newborn sons? A schoolteacher in southern Africa once decided that Nelson would be a very nice name for the young Mandela, after all.

There is no reason for them to consider the exact associations of a name in the place of its origins, after all. My husband’s grandfather once had to intervene in the case of a couple in his Bengal village who had decided to name their baby daughter Irene – a charming, modern, Western name, they had thought. Unexpectedly, the mother had twin girls, and, after struggling to think of a matching name for the second child, decided to call her Urine. My husband’s grandfather prevented it, in rather a feudal way, but why not? It might sound rather pretty in Bengali, just as Tonibler sounds heroic to the Kosovan ear.

The odd thing is that we don’t do it ourselves. I can see why we don’t name our children Gordon Brown Entwistle or William Hague McDonald. They are a bit too close to home for us to regard them as heroes. But, considering the immense adulation expended over long periods over heroic foreign politicians like Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev, is it not strange that our schools are not now filled with little Nelsons and Mikhails? I have once or twice met someone in early middle age named Kennedy in pious commemoration, but no one born more recently than the 1970s seems to be named in this spirit.

You hear about the occasional tragic case of a lunatic who names a child after a football team, but never, in this country, after a politician. Still, a choir of juvenile Toniblers has its admirable, idealistic aspect. I once met a man who had a snooker table in Rotherham named after him, but this, I can see, is more impressive.

A spoonful full of poison is taken Down Under

For some reason unaccountable to me, Mary Poppins was voted the all-time favourite family movie last year. I’ve never, ever, even in childhood, managed to get past that song that goes “I love to laugh, har har, har har.” But plenty of people seem to like it.

Since 1999 the town of Maryborough in Queensland, Australia, has been mounting a Mary Poppins Festival in celebration of the horrid work’s author, PL Travers, who was born there. It happened last week. There was a Chimney Sweep Challenge, a Nanny Challenge, a band in the park and belly dancing, for some unexplained and non-Poppins reason. At least, I think it’s non-Poppins – as I say, I never got to the end of the film.

However, it seems that PL Travers spent hardly any of her life in Maryborough at all, and another Australian town, Bowral, famous for being the home of the cricketer Don Bradman, is planning to mount a Mary Poppins Birthplace Festival towards the end of this month. This always happens, I believe. There is a fierce competition between a number of Irish islands to claim the title of the “real” Craggy Island from Father Ted, for instance. In the case of the surprisingly acrimonious Mary Poppins row, the peculiar feature is that neither town has any kind of presence, as far as I know, in either the book or the unforgivable film. If there were really a Mary Poppins Festival to be mounted, it should probably take place in a Notting Hill crescent or on the steps of the Bank of England. Preferably without tap-dancing chimney sweeps, the expression “spit-spot” and Dick Van Dyke’s ccockney accent, however.

Petty patriotism shows up the futility of sport

“Your nation has beaten my nation,” I said to my husband yesterday.

“Oh yes,” he said absently. There was a lengthy silence from the sitting room.

“In cricket,” I said.

“Oh yes,” he said. “Have you seen the Radio Times? I want to know when the repeat of Keeping Up Appearances starts.”

“Don’t you think that’s interesting, though, about the cricket?” I said.

“What?” “It says here that it’s the first time that Bangladesh has ever beaten England. They’re the only team that has always beaten Bangladesh. Until yesterday.”

“I have no idea,” Zaved said, “what you’re talking about.”

“It was in Bristol,” I said.

“Good,” Zaved said. “Aren’t we supposed to be cheering on our respective nations?” I said.

“Well, I don’t think so,” Zaved said. “Last week you were shouting Schiess, Deutschland, Schiess at the television when the Germans were playing England, and then before that claiming you would shoot yourself in the head if that awful Andy Murray beat Rafael Nadal.”

“Well, I love Rafael Nadal,” I said. “I love his little face; I love the way he ...”

“Look, enough already about Rafael Nadal,” Zaved said.

But after what seems to have been an immense summer of nationalism tied to sporting success, it grows weary even to be anti-patriotic on principle. For five minutes we stared at the coverage saying that England had failed against Bangladesh, that Bangladesh had triumphed over England. It should have led to a household split.

In the event, nation spoke unto nation, and we decided to stop pretending to take an interest in sport altogether.

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