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A chucklesome comment from Sali Lamo, New Yorker cartoonist: “Not to be a downer or anything, but Michael Jackson’s dying is really going to hurt the credibility of the hyperbaric-oxygen-chamber industry.”

Which is an insightful and previously neglected thought; although I would say this:  people didn’t seem to be put off running when the health convert Jim Fixx, doyen of jogging, dropped dead from a heart attack at the age of 52.

joggers bw

Even now you can’t throw a plimsoll in Central Park, Hyde Park, Stanley Park or Albert Park without it bouncing off the cranium of somebody sweatily loping around its perimeter. And at times it seems that there are more people at any one time taking part in marathons around the world’s great cities than laying on the couch watching them.

Death can kindly stop for anyone, though, and slowly drive them off in his carriage. His  lifetime-sized hourglass currently hangs over Patrick Swayze; and he has previously transported away Syd Barrett, Luciano Pavarotti, Rene Magritte, Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Pausch and Bill Hicks in the glossy landau he calls ‘Pancreatic Cancer’.

death carriage

This coach usually draws up alongside octo- and septuagenarians but can also squeak to a halt alongside the young and healthy. Nobody really knows why. Pancreatic cancer is not genetic. Bill Hicks blamed it on his energetic smoking, which certainly cannot have helped; yet Keith Richards still somehow walks the earth, while Randy Pausch never let a cigarette pass his lips.

Professor Pausch was a computer science lecturer and researcher at Carnegie Mellon whose ‘last words’ were an inspiring ‘Last Lecture‘. Which I’ll get around to watching and getting inspired by at some point. Before I die, let’s say.

The last words of Bill Hicks were a more pithy “I’ve said all I have to say” on Valentine’s Day 1994. And he was as good as his word, staying silent for his final twelve days on this world.

Bill Hicks

To come full circle, though, here are some of the great(est) comedian’s thoughts on the subject at hand:

“Does anyone remember this, when Yul Brynner died, and came out with that commercial after he was dead? ‘I’m Yul Brynner and I’m dead now.

What the fuck’s this guy selling? I’m all ears.

I’m Yul Brynner and I’m dead now, because I smoked cigarettes.’

Okay, pretty scary. But they coulda done that with anybody. They coulda done it with that Jim Fixx guy, too, just as easily. Remember that guy, that health nut who died while jogging? I don’t remember seeing his commercial. ‘I’m Jim Fixx and I’m dead now. And I don’t know what the fuck happened. I jogged every day, ate nothing but tofu, swam five hundred laps every morning, and I’m dead. Yul Brynner drank, smoke, and got laid every night of his life… he’s dead.

Shit.

Yul Brynner’s smokin’, drinkin’, girls are sitting on his cueball noggin every night of his life! I’m running around a dewy track at dawn. And we’re both fuckin’ dead. Goddammit.

Yul used to pass me on his way home in the morning, big long limousine, two girls blowing him, cigarette in one hand, drink in the other. “One day that life is going to get to you, Yul.” ‘

They’re both dead. Yeah, but what a healthy looking corpse you were, Jim. Look at the hamstrings on that corpse! Look at the sloppy grin on Yul’s corpse! Yul Brynner lived his life. Sure, he died a 78-pound stick figure, okay. There are certain drawbacks.”

“Does anyone remember this, when Yul Brynner died, and came out with that commercial after he was dead?
‘I’m Yul Brynner and I’m dead now.’
What the fuck’s this guy selling? I’m all ears.
‘I’m Yul Bryner and I’m dead now, because I smoked cigarettes.’
Okay, pretty scary. But they coulda done that with anyone. They coulda done it with that Jim Fixx guy, too, remember that guy, that health nut who died while jogging? I don’t remember seeing his commercial!
‘I’m Jim Fixx and I’m dead now. And I don’t know what the fuck happened. I jogged every day, ate nothing but tofu, swam five hundred laps every morning, and I’m dead. Yul Bryner drank, smoke, and got laid every night of his life… he’s dead. Shit! Yul Bryner’s smokin’, drinkin’, girls are sitting on his cueball noggin, every night of his life! I’m running around a dewy track at dawn. And we’re both fuckin’ dead. Yul used to pass me on his way home in the morning, big long limousine, two girls blowing him, cigarette in one hand, drink in the other. “One day that life is going to get to you, Yul.”‘
They’re both dead. Yeah, but what a healthy looking corpse you were, Jim. Look at the hamstrings on that corpse! Look at the sloppy grin on Yul’s corpse! Yul Bryner lived his life. Sure, he died a 78-pound stick figure, okay. There are certain drawbacks.”
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Advisory: Look out — here follows stuff about cricket and cremation.

Sport serves as a metaphor, even a proxy, for myriad rivalries: nation against nation, city against city, suburb against suburb. In soccer/football — let’s call it soccerball for convenience —  just look at the genuine enmity that lies between FC Barcelona and Réal Madrid, and the mutual hatred shared by Manchester United and Liverpool; or at intra-city level there’s United and City, who both claim the sobriquet ‘Manchester’s team’. For sectarian spice (and some tasty violence, let’s face it) look no farther than Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers.

Baseball has the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Mets, the Cubs and the White Sox, and the Dodgers and … well, everybody. Nobody likes the Dodgers, right?

I don’t know all that much about Aussie Rules Football, but I’m given to understand that Carlton and Collingwood share, shall we say, a similarly keen sense of competition.

At international level, the apotheosis of the perennial love-hate relationship between England and Australia is The Ashes, the third match of the 2009 series of which begins on Thursday this week. At which point I should point cricket neophytes towards an explanation: Wikipedia will do for now.

Suffice to say, The Ashes is a quasi-biennial series of five matches of five-day cricket spread across the summer, alternating between Blighty and the Antipodes, that has been fought over since 1882, and which serves, even in these less-romantic and more hard-nosed professional times, to define those summers. To make a facile comparison, it’s like an elasticated seven-week World Series. But with tea and cakes.

How this cricket series came by its name has been discussed to the point of tedium. But this is cricket after all; you’re supposed to be bored, people seem to think. So I’ll run through it again, point by point.

  • When Australia visited England in 1882, they arrived for the second Test at The Oval, London, having not won any of the eight matches the two nations had thus far contested.
  • An act of chicanery by W. G. Grace lit such a rocket of righteous indignation under the Australians that it propelled them to a remarkable victory. Dr William Gilbert Grace was the best cricketer of his age and for a good while after: “a portly all-rounder”, according to Simon Briggs in The Daily Telegraph, “who shared a beard with Rasputin and a moral code with Al Capone.” He might have invented both gamesmanship and sporting celebrity.

wg-grace

  • So fired up was the Australian fast-bowler Frederick ‘The Demon’ Spofforth (I kid you not) by the Doctor’s underhandedness that he took seven wickets for just 44 runs, and Australia won by a meagre six runs — to the shame and chagrin of the nation, the England team and its unfortunate captain A.N. ‘Monkey’ Hornby (really). Such was the tension in the closing minutes that one spectator keeled over with a fatal heart attack while another chewed clean through the handle of his bumbershoot.
  • Reginald Shirley Brooks — journalist, boulevardier, flâneur, bon viveur, lothario, gambler and man-whose-middle-name-was-Shirley — felt moved to publish this now infamous mock obituary in The Sporting Times:

obituary

  • A few months later the England team sailed to Australia to take up the cudgels once again. This time they were without W.G. Grace, who it might reasonably be assumed was omitted for fear of his bulk capsizing the ship or his extravagant beard fouling the propellor.

ashes_188283

It seems that they took a splendid array of moustaches, though, and also the Honourable Ivo ‘Lemur’ Bligh (later 8th Earl of Darnby) as the new captain. Of the cricket team, not the ship.

And I made up the ‘Lemur’ part.

  • On arrival, Bligh announced “We have come to beard the kangaroo in his den, and to try to recover those ashes” (which they did) thus cementing the term in in the popular imagination (without the capital ‘A’ just yet). Presumably, though, forced marsupial facial hair never caught on.

During the tour, the Hon. I. Bligh fell for a music teacher called Florence Morphy, and she for him. So besotted was she that at a Christmas party she mischievously presented Bligh with a tiny perfume jar filled with real ashes which became and remains the manifestation of the whole metaphorical conceit.

Oh, and they got married the following year.

ashes 3

Here we have your Ashes ‘trophy’, Ricky ‘Punter’ Ponting (Australia) brandishing it, and Andrew ‘Fred’ Flintoff (England) desiring it.

The gentlemen are not giants: it really is that tiny. But that’s not the original, I have to confess, which never leaves the display case at Lord’s, the home of cricket. The ashes contained in that wee jar (which came to be renamed ‘the urn’, for a more Olympian and hairy image) are supposed to comprise, depending on who you believe, the burnt remnants of either a ball or a bail or a stump or a veil or, god help us, an Aborigine.

Most likely they are nothing of the sort and were just sweepings from the grate, or the mortal remains of one of Florence’s lacy lavender-soaked handkerchiefs.

So that’s the outline of the story of The Ashes as briefly as I can sketch it. Which is still pretty lengthy but does not even scratch the surface of more than a century of drama, intrigue, sporting heroism, athleticism, stoicism, bravery, diplomatic incidents, blood, moustaches and cake.

But there is one twist to the original Ashes gag that is often overlooked or not even known. A subtly macabre and satirical political point was being scored, which would have been obvious at the time but which soon became lost amidst the romanticism and mythology of the contest itself.

In the late 19th century the practice of human cremation was illegal. The father of Reginald Brooks, author of that sardonic obituary to English cricket, was Shirley Brooks (from whom Reginald bequeathed his middle name) who was also a journalist (and author and playwright). He became editor of the satirical magazine Punch but was also a fervent campaigner for the right to cremate.

Shirley Brooks helped to found the Cremation Society of England, which included amongst its membership such luminaries as Anthony Trollope. The Society issued a Declaration that began “We the undersigned disapprove the current custom of burying the dead, and we desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements.” Apart from anything else, they reckoned that those ‘component elements’ would make splendid fertilizer.

Before sufficient pressure and opinion could be brought to bear on Parliament, however, Brooks Sr. died and was buried not burned.

cremation

The Australian cricket team arrived in 1882, just as a Captain Hanham from Dorset was asking for the Society to help him cremate two family members. The government said ‘no’ but he went ahead anyway, building his own crematorium, if you please, and avoided prosecution.

Frustrated at not having been able to fulfill his father’s wishes in the same way, Reginald Brooks grasped the opportunity to make his point in print while simultaneously deriding the national sport. To which I say: “Neat, huh?”

The combatants resuming hostilities on Thursday in the soggy English Midlands will mostly be unaware of this darker motif. Quite right, too. They need just concentrate on hurling that hard red ball at each other with extreme prejudice.

cricket-ball

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The great and dignified traditions of protest, resistance and civil disobedience as practised by Mohandas Ghandi, Rosa Parks and Stephen Biko surely reached their apogee at Heathrow airport last week.

Literally several dissidents lined up to militate against the British government’s plans to construct a third runway at London’s principal airport. This necessitates flattening the village of Sipson, so certain people are understandably somewhat chippy. Specifically the residents of Sipson, one supposes, but also evidently the actress Emma Thompson.

And just how exactly did these protesters – sans Emma Thompson, sadly – ‘line up’? In a Conga Line around Terminal Five, that’s how. Oh yes.

heathrow-third-runway-conga

There they are, Conga-ing like the dickens. Although not obvious in this photograph, a few chose to sport Edwardian garb. Perhaps this is in misguided homage to Emmeline Pankhurst but, to be honest, I can’t be bothered to confirm, or otherwise, this hypothesis.

It’s a peculiarly English charade – like charades itself – this passion to Conga; although ‘passion’ is hardly the mot juste, given that it is stripped of all the ardour of the Cuban original. Instead it is imbued with a strange forced humour and reluctant enjoyment, the latter rather like sneaking that somehow guilty slice of rather bland but supposedly exotic cake. Like Battenburg, for example.

Outside the confines of bad wedding receptions and church-hall socials (the milieu of the Battenburg cake, funnily enough) the Conga Line is most commonly given an airing at sporting events. During rain breaks at Wimbledon, for example, but also on the terraces of football stadia, generally when the performers’ team is six-nil down and the need for levity becomes desperate.

It is also employed to relieve the tedium of a day of cricket. Not the monotony of the cricket itself, necessarily, but that of fellow fans chanting “Barmy Armyad nauseum. Sadly, it seems to be warmer climes that inspire the conga; ‘sadly’, because the sunshine and warmth of Australia, the West Indies and South Africa naturally encourage the English cricket supporter to don rather less clothing than in his natural environment: he inhabits a succession of ill-advised T-shirts and surprising shorts, thus presenting the watching world with a startling contrast between a lobster-red face and pasty-white limbs, wobbling with the effort of the kick on every fourth beat. In the chilly drizzle of a Thursday afternoon in Nottingham the full horror would at least be mitigated by trousers.

edwardian-conga

Ultimately, I blame Desi Arnaz. Although the Conga Line was known in the USA as early as 1905, its popularity grew exponentially from the 1930s to 1950s after the aforementioned husband of Lucille Ball arrived from Cuba; and where America leads England follows.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting way forward for peaceful protest. What next, I wonder? A Hokey-Cokey for Tibet? Well, why not? At the very least, somebody putting their left leg in and shaking it all about is a lot harder to shoot. Sharpeville and Kent State could have been so different.

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From 1970s Germany, one must assume.

I use the words ‘dancing’, ‘fashion’ and even ‘soccer’ advisedly here, and probably wrongly. But the beard is real; for the full insanity I advise you to wait at least for the man with the beard.

Now ready yourself for Tanzen! Fußball! Kleidung! Und ein Bart!

By the way, if anybody knows a more appropriate German word for ‘fashion’ than ‘Kleidung’, which is really ‘clothes’, I think, then I’d be delighted to know. My German ist nicht gut.

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