On Saturday, I shall be beside the Eiffel Tower, hoping to see David Millar win the Prologue of the centennial Tour de France. Until last year, I’d long followed the Tour at a distance, but never in person. Then I was asked to write a history of the race, and to cover it for the Daily Mail, subsequently transferring to the Financial Times on not quite Beckhamical terms. My reinvention as a sportswriter – FT columnist, Tour historian, not to say lecturer on sport in English history at the University of Texas – has surprised me as much as anyone, but very enjoyable it is. The Tour in particular is the most extraordinary of all sporting events, and anyway, if one is going to cover any such event, France is the country to do it in. Three weeks around the hexagone only increases my already besotted francophilia, and not just because of the hotels and restaurants, though they are exhilarating enough for anyone who knows our own. The splendour of French railways and roads could convert me to higher taxation, and driving on a July evening through la France profonde, with its heavily subsidised, scenically glorious cornfields, vineyards and orchards, could almost convert me to the old CAP.
A less obvious passion is Northern Ireland. It’s true that for more than 30 years the reasons for going there have often been gloomy, and so, after too much time spent covering a bloody and intractable conflict and the dishonest attempts to end it, it was all the pleasanter to go to Co. Antrim last weekend for a very happy occasion, the wedding of Thomas Pennybacker and Flora McDonnell. But whatever had taken me there, or whenever, I learnt years ago the well-kept secret that Ulster is the single most beautiful corner of the British Isles with, what’s more surprising, the nicest people. On Saturday we drove through the Glens of Antrim to Dunluce Castle and Bushmills before pottering across the Giant’s Causeway (pace Johnson, more worth going to see than seeing) and visiting the the wonderful little whitewashed Church of Ireland church on the cliff tops at Ballintoy. Then we found the beach at Whitehead, where I swam rather briefly, and went by breathtaking way of Torr Head back to Glenarm and the festivities. Further west of Ballintoy is another magnificent beach, miles long and one of the finest in Europe, but with chilling signs which forbid bathing because of the lethal currents and undertow: beguiling but treacherous, maybe a parable of Ulster politics.
As those who backed Dalkhani for the Irish Derby won’t need to be reminded, ‘a racing certainty’ is a phrase to be treated with caution, but a tipster can make a few predictions with confidence. Barring accidents, Lance Armstrong will win his fifth consecutive Tour, and, barring war or pestilence, no French rider will; England will not win the next Test series against Australia; and the Conservatives will not win the next election. That is, they almost certainly won’t win anyway, but they cannot conceivably win under their present leader. The latest blip in the polls puts them just ahead of Labour; given the incompetence and mendacity of the government, they should be 15 points ahead. That follows the local elections, which were actually the worst possible result for the Tories: nothing like impressive enough to suggest a real recovery, but just good enough to quell thoughts of deposing Iain Duncan Smith. Like most people, I had never heard of Crispin Blunt before his recent pronunciamento. He was much mocked by my colleagues, and his surname had Rod Liddle and Peter Oborne merrily leafing through their rhyming dictionaries. The truth is less droll: although Blunt may be a complete Tom Hunt or see-you-next-Tuesday (as we say on the racecourse), he is right about IDS. And the Tories know it. Thanks to their own stupidity, not least in taking the choice of leader away from MPs, they’re stuck with Iain, and so the rest of us are stuck with Tony.
As is well known, there’s no copyright in book titles. My book Le Tour is published on Monday by Simon & Schuster, which I shyly mention to distinguish it from another new book of just the same title. That identical sort-of-franglais name was also used by the late and much missed Geoffrey Nicholson for one of his own books some years ago, and I dare say has been by others. This may sound unoriginal, but avoiding such duplication is harder than you might think. When I wrote a book about the South African mining magnates and called it The Randlords, I was aware that someone else had written a book of the same name on the same subject some 50 years earlier, but when I wrote a book about Zionism called The Controversy of Zion, I honestly didn’t know that this verse from Isaiah had been used before for a book title. It seems that the more diligently one searches for an esoteric phrase, the more certain it is that someone else will have thought of it. I can recall two books called The King of a Rainy Country, and two called Dear Shadows (Spectator readers won’t need to be told that these phrases are from Baudelaire and Yeats). And would Polonius ever have guessed that there would be two novels published within a few years of each other called Very Like a Whale?
Because of the speed at which I wrote Le Tour, I had to type it myself rather than entrust it, as with previous books, to other and surer fingers. As a result, my first rough draft was very rough indeed and Andrew Gordon, my patient editor, observing that he had found two dozen literals in two paragraphs, courteously suggested that I might try the spellcheck device on my computer. The trouble is that all machines are malevolent, and any computer has a mind of its own. Unless you’re very adroit with the ‘change’ and ‘skip’ keys, it will take over and impose its own will. So it was that Luchon in the Pyrenees became ‘Luton’ throughout my script; l’Affaire, as in Dreyfus, or for that matter Festina, became ‘leafier’; while Edith Wharton, who wrote about Mont Ventoux long before poor Tom Simpson keeled over and died there in 1967, became ‘Edith Whatnot’, which I rather liked, but the funny side of which I don’t think she would have seen. As to the point when the book reaches Brittany, keen students of French history would have been puzzled by my mention of that obscure episode in the story of childcare, the Revocation of the Edict of Nannies. We just about managed to change these back before publication, but I still wake up sweating at the thought of a book about a great hike race, called Le Tour de Force.