Let age approve of youth

The Carling affair has buried the values of the Spitfire pilots' generation, says Richard Williams
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WHO remembers Dennis Easby? Already the 70-year-old retired solicitor, the focal point of a rivetting national argument as long ago as last weekend, has drifted back to his former obscurity. After first sacking Will Carling and then reinstating him due to public outrage, he is destined to be remembered only for his indelible final words on the affair, also an epitaph for a generation of British leadership: "I stand by my decisions."

And what of the subject of those "decisions"? When Carling flies to South Africa on Wednesday for the Rugby World Cup, he will be travelling as something more than the England captain. After last weekend's furore, he is assured of his place in the social history of post-war Britain, regardless of what happens to his team.

He has established himself as the central figure in a long series of slick dramas devised by the British media. This one lasted 72 hours, start to finish, with hardly a minute of dead time: a masterclass in moulding life to fit the well-established format of the made-for-TV mini-series. Day one: the exposition. Day two: the development. Day three: the denouement. Action, reaction, resolution; an enclosed form, observing the requirement of drama to provide a satisfying sequence of conflict and catharsis.

The cadence of this unfolding story is designed to suit the audience's ever-shortening attention span. But now the place of playwright is taken by the anonymous news editors, whose job it is to ensure that the events with which they deal are not merely reported but are shaped to fit the requirements of their particular medium.

Sport is irresitsible. It has a cast of well-known characters, a blend of youth, aggression, entertainment and big bucks, and with the budget- friendly bonus of camera crews already on site, news editors have plenty of opportunities to hone their techniques. Television generates the quasi- scandalous story. It takes Michael Atherton's actions with the ball, which would never have been noticed without the cameras, Eric Cantona's karate kick, which drew its force from repeated screenings and Will Carling's "57 old farts" remark, which was recorded as part of a television documentary, and passes them on to the hungrily competitive tabloids, whose editors use their own presentational skills to raise the tempo and the intensity: "The Soiled Skipper!" "Cantona: Bad or Mad?" "Twickers in a Twist!" and the endless repetitions of "Sack Him!" The broadsheets (like this one) follow, grateful for a legitimate excuse to invite their readers to share in the national obsession with frivolity.

The pressure on those involved to deliver summary justice is unremitting. At least a judge in Glasgow's Sheriff Court can still feel able to postpone his sentencing of the footballer Duncan Ferguson for a fortnight while he examines reports and turns the matter over in his mind. But in trial by media, the timing gets tighter and tighter. When Atherton was seen to be doing something funny to a cricket ball in the outfield at Lord's last July, we were taken from instant condemnation through forensic examination to conditional discharge in just over seven days. When Cantona lashed out at Matthew Simmons across the touchline at Selhurst Park in January, the hanging judges of Thursday morning gave way to Sunday's forgiving sociologists.

Dennis Easby's duty, however, was not to an ever-hungry media but elsewhere, and he attempted to discharge it in accordance with a set of disciplines that had held the high ground at the end of the Second World War but which have been eroding steadily since. How eerily appropriate, then, that the Carling affair should coincide, virtually to the hour, with the VE Day celebrations. The story broke in the bright sunshine of Saturday morning, as the crowds assembled in Hyde Park, and ended with the last glimmer of daylight on Monday evening, as the nation stood silent and the veterans said their farewells. It was then that Carling and Easby shook hands for the cameras.

In the colder light of the next morning, coincidence seemed the wrong word. The superimposition of one time-frame on another now looked like nothing less than a way of making us examine ourselves. Which is the service that sport has been providing to the nation with increasing regularity over the past 10 years, as football fans have died at home and abroad, as the English cricket team has been thrashed by mighty Zimbabwe, and as our tennis players have cleared their lockers long before the end of the first week of Wimbledon. Whenever these things happen we ask: what kind of people does this make us?

This time there was more to it than the simple equation of sporting failure with a crisis of national self-confidence. As I listened last Saturday to Dennis Easby explaining, with headmasterly gravitas, why he had found it impossible to avoid his duty to sack Carling, I found myself drifting back to a summer day in 1964 when I was ushered into the study of just such a man, to be presented with a catalogue of misdemeanours - nothing much more serious, actually, than smoking behind the sightscreen and refusing to get a haircut - and told that my formal education had come to a premature conclusion. Chastened and resentful as I was, I couldn't help but feel a stirring of sympathy for my judge. Correctly interpreting a case of insubordination as the first rustling of a wind of change, a minor custodian of public morality was doing his best to hold the line. Thirty years later, the president of the Rugby Football Union fought and lost perhaps the last rearguard action in the same war.

Carling's irreverent description of the members of the RFU ended a conflict that had probably begun a year before my own obscure skirmish as a schoolboy. On stage at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance, John Lennon bypassed the conventional civilities and invited those in the cheaper seats to show their appreciation for his group's rendition of "Twist and Shout" by clapping their hands, while the occupants of the Royal Circle, including the Queen Mother, should just rattle their jewellery. Such impish lse-majest! Such charm! But in 1963 the Beatles were still loveable moptops; to most parents, they seemed refreshingly tuneful and wholesome. But the grown- ups were not to know that Lennon's apparently harmless bit of Scouse cheek in the royal presence was driving the first bright little nail into the coffin of deference.

The Establishment's watchdogs caught on soon enough. Acid trips, nude album covers, love-ins for peace and the widely misunderstood claim that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" brought Lennon to the attention of the Drugs Squad, the Obscene Publications boys, the FBI and the Ku Klux Klan. But, for all the efforts of those and other agencies, the retreat was on, and the last vestiges of resistance collapsed on the day the captain of the England rugby team was heard across the nation, describing his administrators as "57 old farts".

Dennis Easby's immediate response, his words sharing the television news with the medals and bunting of the VE Day celebrations, was a final attempt to hold back the modern world, representing the last hurrah of a generation and a class. Let's call them the Spitfire pilots. And the conjunction reminded me of something else: of the time, ten or so years ago, that I went to a rugby dinner, attracted solely by the prospect of being in the presence of the guest speaker, Douglas Bader.

I remembered the sickening sense of disappointment when that shining boyhood hero used his speech to deliver a lengthy and well-received recommendation for the apartheid regime in South Africa. How sad it was that a man who had done such brave things could not see what seemed perfectly obvious to people 20 or 30 years younger.

Calling Douglas Bader an old fart would not have seemed right, in any circumstances. And Carling was correct to apologise to the RFU for a comment that, however unguardedly it was made, spoke poorly of his judgement as an influential public figure. But the RFU president's immediate insistence on exemplary punishment, followed swiftly by his volte-face in the face of a popular outcry, ensured that no one will ever be able to take his kind seriously again. In the course of a single weekend, the last remnant of the traditional rugby club ethos, with its legacy of racism and snobbery, its semi-covert policy of exclusion, was blown into history. There will be no more Dennis Easbys.

Chris Rea: Sport, page 3