Simon Hoggart’s week: Olympic training in the Beebcave

Staying ahead of the Games: is this how BBC commentators avoid being lost for words in minority sports?

?Browsing among the 24 events shown simultaneously on the BBC, I pondered where they find all the commentators. Obviously none of us have the faintest interest in trap shooting or canoe slaloming for three years and 50 weeks in every four years, so there can be no work for these folk.

Perhaps the BBC has great secret establishments, maybe in caves, where they are kept like Chinese athletes in semi-servitude, given rigorous instruction in their chosen sport, year round, forced to watch film of taekwondo and synchronised diving and do practice commentaries until they get it right.

Some of them shower us with the patois of the sport, confusing everyone at home – “that reverse double back flip with chevron is going to cost points…” without explaining why, or “we’re looking for a rotational technique here…” Sometimes they simply ignore the finer points: “oh, that is marvellous, just marvellous…”

In the first few days they all had to dredge up ways of letting us down gently about the failing Brits. “He’s got a lot of work to do here” meant “he’s losing.” Or, “this guy is a battler, he never gives up,” means “he’s losing.” “We need a rocket, and we need it now,” means “they’re losing”. A reasonably average start, I have to say that was a bad start…” means, “she’s going to come last.” “A brave and valiant effort,” means “he lost.”

“This can be a very cruel sport,” means “the Brit has lost, very suddenly.” Or sometimes, they get lost in the language they’ve been taught in the Beebcave, and don’t hear what they’re saying, as of a swimmer, “if she’s got such a good back end, why go so fast and risk losing that back end?”

?Steve Pound MP claims he was eating in an Indian restaurant. “The waiter came up and asked, ‘curry okay?’, so I said ‘all right, just one song, then clear off…'”

?You get used to being searched these days, especially in London. The other day I put my Guardian onto the tray to be X-rayed, and the policeman said, “Guardian, eh? They don’t like the Old Bill.” I said I was surprised that they called themselves that. “Oh, yes,” he said, “and ‘filth’, and ‘scum’.” I suppose in the same way American black men call themselves “niggas” and gay people say, “we’re queer and we’re here” – it draws the sting. Nobody has a clue why the police are known as the Old Bill – it may be something to do with Kaiser Bill, in his old police-style helmet, or because all official vehicles in London used to have license plates beginning BYL. There are scores of other guesses. But it got me thinking why we shouldn’t have loveable slang for other fields of activity. Highly educated people would say, “You want to slow down, there’s a lot of Karl about – you know, Karl Popper, copper…”

A literature lover would ask, “Can you get me that collected Nina down from the top shelf?” A puzzled friend would ask what he was on about: “Nina Bawden, W.H. Auden, of course!”

Or, “ouch, I just stubbed my Alan Silly!” (You work that out.) “Would you like a spot of Ludwig? Heavens, don’t you speak English? Ludwig Wittgenstein, wine. Red or white, it’s your Jimmy – James Joyce, choice.” It would drive us all mad, quite soon.

?The late Maeve Binchey was an extraordinary woman, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She had a interesting life before discovering her métier as a novelist. She began work as a schoolteacher, and taught my old friend Renagh Holohan, who used to be Belfast correspondent of the Irish Times. Maeve then became a reporter on the same paper, and Renagh was promoted to news editor, so she became her old teacher’s boss.

Then Maeve took up writing, at first in London, where she had come to be with Gordon, the love of her life. We used to see a lot of them when the Irish embassy held wonderful Christmas parties at which the press and politicians could mix with the Irish diaspora – writers, actors, singers; they made memorable hoolies. But then they separated out the pols and the hacks, so that now we drink with the people we see every day. Maeve just sparkled with life; a conversation with her was like drinking a glass of chilled champagne.

?We spent a couple of days this week in Shropshire, which I don’t know well, but is one of the most magical parts of the country. Housman’s green and blue hills march like the Great Wall of China, climbing and dipping, as if guarding England from the Celtic hordes. In the small towns and villages there are few chain stores; instead little half-timbered shops sell sticky buns, antiques and the kind of clothes most people haven’t worn for decades.

We were shown round Tanners, one of the oldest and most distinguished wine merchants in Britain. It’s a bit like the cellars of Hogwarts as imagined by Charles Dickens. In the little front office they have only recently put bottles of wine; it used to be thought vulgar to have the merchandise on display. There are crested bottles, because important families of the region would send their own glassware to be filled from casks.

They have the largest bottle of Moët et Chandon ever made (empty, I fear). Notices warn, “beware of the floor”; there is the “port cage” in which ancient, dust-encrusted bottles have lived in slumbering safety for decades, even half-centuries. Now and again the river floods the cellars, and hundreds of labels go floating down towards Bristol. Yet they keep up with all the latest trends so amid the clarets and Burgundies you’ll find Portuguese and Bulgarian wines. Infinitely more fun than any supermarket.

?Iain Kelman sends a picture of a bottle of Asda sparkling water, “good for hydration,” it says, helpfully. Mel Atkinson found a news item in the Morecambe Visitor: “Breastfeeding mums can take part in a Latch On event, as part of World Breastfeeding Day. Arrive at 10am for registration; refreshments provided.” Mel says, “I think I’ll skip the refreshments.” © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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