What a glorious sporting summer it has been so far. For some the highlight will have been Andy Murray at Wimbledon, for others that nailbiting first Test against the Aussies. But for me, none of this comes even close to matching the joy, the exultation, the triumph of the moment on an Atlantic beach a few days ago when our hot young female Portuguese surf instructor took Girl and me aside to comment on our morning’s performance. ‘You, Poppy, and you, James, are both good,’ she said.
That’s ‘good’ as in the exact opposite of ‘bad’. Indeed that’s good, quite possibly, as in — though she didn’t actually express this verbally — ‘You are the most amazingly naturally talented beginner surfer it has ever been my privilege to teach. I can’t believe you are nearly 48 years old. You have the body of a young Spartan, the agility of a cheetah, and the sticking power of an ibex on the wall of that dam in Italy that was all over the internet recently. Give it another couple of weeks and we’ll have you tackling that 100 foot wave just up the road from here in Nazaré, easy.’
Mind you, I think it’s lucky that she didn’t state what she was clearly thinking, because had she done so my heart would have burst on the spot with pure delight. This is one of the curses of being born a not-especially-sporty person — one of the curses of being human, now I think about it: the talents you all too often crave most are the ones most furthest from your reach.
For example, never once in my life have I spent even a fraction of a millisecond wishing I could be better at English. I’m not saying I’m the new William Cobbett meets George Orwell meets H.L. Mencken and PJ O’Rourke, necessarily. But I’ve rarely found writing much of a problem, let us just say. So little trouble do I have with my literary facility, indeed, that I quite despise it. If I weren’t so maddeningly OK at writing, I occasionally torture myself, then I might have ended up in a job that pays a living wage.
My progeny, I’ve been appalled to discover recently, suffer the same curse. When their school reports came in, I was genuinely upset by how well they were doing in English. ‘Why can’t you be good at something sodding useful like maths or physics,’ I asked them. (There is a counterargument to this. That English is the most important subject of all. Have I written that one yet?) ‘And what’s the point of spending all that money on your education if you’re just going to end up like your parents?’
Luckily, Girl doesn’t want to be an author or a ruddy journalist, she has just told me. She wants to be a professional tennis player. Most fathers’ hearts, I dare say, would sink at this prospect: the endless ferrying to and from county matches and training sessions; the weird status of being a Tennis Dad; the inevitable disappointment when, after all that effort, it turns out that your bestest, darlingest girl doesn’t quite have what it takes to be world No. 1.
Personally, though, I think it’s bloody great that Girl has such fantastical aspirations, because I’m sure she’ll end up much more happy and fulfilled. I don’t mean the Wimbledon bit: never going to happen because I’m not going to do the Tennis Dad thing, so she’s stuffed. But simply by being obsessive enough to want to get to play a sport — any sport — to a high level, she will have set herself up for life.
I’ve reached the age now where you look around at your old friends and contemporaries, see who’s done well, who hasn’t, and what you quickly realise is that academic ability has very little to do with anything. A string of decent grades may get you into a decent university but it can also make you complacent, give you a sense of misplaced entitlement and take away the hunger (or maybe the protective carapace of stupidity) that drives lesser intellects to greater -success.
Being good at a sport, on the other hand — now there’s the thing. My Uncle Perce, for example, is no thicko but his successful business career was most definitely built on the golf course rather than on anything he may have picked up at Stourbridge grammar. He’s now chairman of Worcester County Cricket club, which gives you an idea of where his life priorities lie — and where they always have done.
God, I wish I’d paid more attention to him when I was younger. If only I’d known then what I know now: that time spent honing your sporting skills, now matter how maladroit or lacking in ball sense you may be, is never time wasted. It makes your fellow men admire you (or, better still, be jealous of you); it makes women much more likely to go to bed with you; it brings you more trade; it makes you more contacts; it makes you richer, fitter, more suntanned, longer-lived. And the most outrageous thing of all is — apart from all these tremendous side benefits — it’s actually fun too.
Tell me, someone, and be honest now: is 47-and-a-half too late to be contemplating a career as a professional surfer?