Playing sport and reading about it

I saw the new version of The Karate Kid the other day – the one with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan. The one that should really be called ‘The Kung Fu Kid’. (Incidentally, apparently it is called that in China, where it’s set).

The best thing about the film was that it made me leave the cinema desperate to be a Kung Fu fighter. Although the fiancé swiftly grew tired of my impro fight sequences as we wondered along the street. ‘Haya,’ I shouted, repeatedly, as I moved from punch to chop to block to push, only really succeeding in pushing myself backwards, nearly into the road. Clearly I haven’t quite got my Chi under control.

The following day I decided to satisfy myself with a far more English sport. Tennis.

Tennis always makes me think of P.G. Wodehouse. It is the perfect country house pursuit – full of chatter, a touch of mild exertion, and with huge potential for comedy moments and breaks for lemonade, and perhaps freshly cut oranges.

It’s something about the tennis whites, and tennis racquets, and the fact that everyone spends the whole time saying ‘sorry’, as well as the occasional ‘good shot’, or ‘hard luck’ or, ‘no, no don’t worry at all’. It’s so silly, so English, and so much fun.

Anyway, we weren’t, I’m afraid, playing in whites, in a country house and accompanied by a tray of lemonade and oranges. Instead we were playing on a council court and we shared a tap-filled bottle of water. Standards have indeed slipped, although I was wearing my rather snazzy seersucker shorts. And, of course, we did spend the entire time apologising to each other. Does this happen in other countries too? Is it something that is tied to tennis, or just tied to the English?

I feel that sport has only ever occupied a rather marginal part of my life and, if possible, an even more marginal part of my reading. Good books about sport? Pah.

At the bookshop, they are always threatening to introduce a sport section. A few shelves that will be filled with books like Agassi’s (very popular) memoir, Open; Lance Armstrong’s various cycling books; that newish book about Duncan Hamilton (something to do with cricket); as well as all those silly vaguely humorous sport books like Penguins Stopped Play, which are almost invariably about cricket or golf.

SNORE. How dull. Surely the only good thing about sport is playing it. Oh, and I suppose watching it – although you might remember how I feel about the World Cup (here).

It is to my constant surprise that people actually want to read some comedy book poking fun at the antiquated rules of cricket, or a semi-literate memoir about playing lots of tennis.

I think the only thing that might redeem the afore-threatened sports section is if we could include books that aren’t just purely about sport, but in which sport features. Such as The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Basani (which I wrote about here), which revolves around a summer spent on a tennis court. And, indeed, Kawabata’s masterly The Master of Go. This is about a Japanese game – a little bit like chess – and one particular match that lasts several months. It is about poise and seasons and is utterly beautiful, perfectly structured in its smallness, just like a netsuke. By the way, other suggestions for novels which feature sports are gratefully received … just leave a little comment at the bottom.

I imagine that as the 2012 Olympics draws closer, the number of books about sport will multiply, which is a shame as I don’t think sport tends to translate that well into words. And isn’t it completely self-defeating? Apparently, following publication of the final Harry Potter book in July 2007, there was a much lower incidence of children admitted to A&E. Children were sitting down and reading the book, rather than running around, climbing trees, playing games – and sport – and injuring themselves. I suppose that’s a good thing. But I also read somewhere that people (rather neurotic people, I assume) were concerned about a possible increase in child obesity for exactly the same reason. Children who were normally pretty active, especially over the summer holidays, were instead leading sedentary lifestyles, absorbed in reading a book.

If someone’s really into football, they should go to the park and play it, rather than sit on the sofa and read a book about it. (Although, I imagine most football fans sit on the sofa, drink a can of lager and watch it on telly.) But surely reading books about sport stops one actually playing it? Unless, I suppose, one reads them en route to the game.

But perhaps there could be more imaginative ways of combining the two. Perhaps there could be ‘story-runs’, where everyone jogs along, listening to the same book (I suppose, not necessarily about running) through their earphones. Or could a book (perhaps about swimming) be piped through the water of a pool, so that whenever one dipped one’s head under one got a distorted earful of it?

Going back to tennis, whenever one swaps sides, one could sit down, have a glass of water (or lemonade) and read a quick paragraph or two. Although, I’m really not sure how reading could be combined with Kung Fu or Karate. Perhaps, given my dismal attempts at the moves, it’s best to keep that one as something to watch.

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