Philip Hensher: Who needs nice? What we want is a winner

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The Independent Online

As PG Wodehouse nearly said, it's never easy to transform a Scotsman with a grievance into a ray of sunshine. But down at Wimbledon, in Mr Andrew Murray's changing room, a team of emotional makeover experts headed by the pubescent genius's terrifying mother Judy is doing its utmost.

"I like to joke around a bit and have some fun," said the player Tim Henman once called "a miserable git". That was the best one Sunday red-top could do in the campaign to turn Murray into a paragon of charm, but let nobody say that other angles have been neglected.

There was the press conference where he brought up his granny and his girlfriend. There was the bizarre but rather brave outburst of clowning on the court the other day, when between games, Murray took the ball and played what I understand is called "Keepy Uppy" with it.

And there has been the acquisition of a dog. "If Andy Murray is looking more relaxed on court these days," one hardbitten hack cooed through gritted teeth, "that is because there is a new female in his life ... a 12-week-old border terrier."

Presumably acquired just in time for the tournament press conferences, the bitch is called Maggie. Not, it turns out, after the prime minister the Wimbledon crowds love best, but after some song by Murray's compatriot Rod Stewart. He may still have some work to do.

What is going on here is the Niceification of Andy Murray, and a ludicrous spectacle it is proving to be. Poor old Murray, who always looks at the rough end of a particularly brutal growth spurt, has been best known in the past for outbreaks of petulance, once or twice with a rather anti-English tinge.

The petulance hasn't disappeared; when, this week, a beaten opponent quite accurately observed that his second serve could do with some work, Murray responded with a sour and really rather boring volley of statistics about rates of return. A shrug and a smile would do quite as well, once you've won a match.

But why on earth are any of us engaging with this process at all? What do we care whether Murray is a nice person as well as a very good tennis player? Though sportsmen might be better off with even the rudimentary hinterland represented by a 12-week-old border terrier called Maggie, a life spent hitting balls from the age of six onwards isn't conducive to its creation.

One values niceness in everyday life, but, applied to those in search of greatness, the demand seems an irrelevant indignity. How nice, really, was Philip Larkin, or Georg Solti, or AJ Ayer? When we start requiring niceness as a condition of our admiration, we're obviously not serious about the basis of the achievement. What we're asking for is an imaginary friend, or, at very best, a career which will ultimately provide a heartwarming autobiography.

In the case of Andy Murray, his Niceness advisors are wasting their time. He doesn't have any major interests apart from tennis. Like many young people of narrow life experience, he has some vulgar nationalistic prejudices. He evidently hates to lose, and hasn't learnt to conceal his resentment when he does. So what?

Will greater emphasis on border terriers, holding hands with girlfriends, "joking around a bit" get Murray past the quarter finals? If not, I suggest we all restrict our concerns about rounded personalities to people we actually know, and leave him to get on with his job of being a complete and utter swine.

Beware London's art mob

Is Antony Gormley quite sure about his proposal for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square? Thousands of people are going to be invited to stand, for an hour at a time, on the plinth, as "living sculptures". Has he forgotten what the London mob did to David Blaine when he put himself on display in a similar manner? Has he never seen reality television, and the things English people will do when they sense that anyone is looking at them?

I have great admiration for Mr Gormley (pictured left with a model of the plinth). He transformed London last year with his rooftop sculptures. But this proposal neglects two things; the people who will put themselves on display, and the people who will look at them, eggs to hand.

* One more illusion shattered. For a good 25 years, I, along with everyone else I ever knew, firmly believed that Valerie Singleton was a terrific old dyke, and, better still, had been living with Joan Armatrading for decades.

Totally false. Miss Singleton's autobiography tells the tale of an unbroken string of boyfriends including, fabulously, her Blue Peter colleague Peter Purves; worse still, she actually only met Miss Armatrading once, on camera.

I take my hat off, though, to whoever it was that got the wrong end of the stick and, all those years ago, started this obviously ludicrous story. The story had its own momentum, with its suggestions of unbridled passions and secret Sapphic cool under the ladylike Singleton crust.

Next, I suppose, they'll be telling us that the one about the Hollywood star and the gerbils has no basis, either.