Sunday, September 25, 2011
There was a time when competition was confined to that truly contentious area of life: sport. Now, ambition and achievement are ubiquitous words in the world of work, entertainment and leisure. Every sphere of service is required to trumpet its “achievements” against a set of targets; budding entertainers are made to elbow aside their peers on television shows to realise their “ambitions”; shoppers are whooped and applauded because they are the first to “achieve” their “ambition” to buy the latest i-product.
In some cultures, ambition is an entirely pejorative term, considered to be a sign of disequilibrium, discontent, an overreaching, grasping self. It is a word I have never tended to trouble myself with. Achievement is equally tainted: it smacks of success and triumph for their own sakes. Interestingly, the modern antonyms of these words are apathy and failure, not satisfaction and contentment. They are about reaching as high as possible; there is no place for the modest notion of the ambition and achievement of happiness. The language of a competitive culture has stripped these words of any of their context. As the air of competition has bled into other areas of life, the sporting Corinthian spirit has not. The idea that we do not all need to be winners because we enjoy taking part anyway, seems incapable of being transferred to the way we live. There is no room for heroic Joe Gargery - who has “a place that he is competent to fill, and fills well and with respect” – but plenty of space for the sharp-elbowed Pips of this world.
I decided to locate my place in a culture of ambition by identifying one defining achievement of my own. Could it be that time I spent three days holed up at home reading a biography of The Clash and listening to their five albums on heavy rotation? Or having read all of Dickens’ novels, including the unedifying Edwin Drood? In the interests of wider research, I sent messages to everyone I have ever known asking if they can recall me doing anything that might be described as an achievement, something that scaled the heights. It took a while to sift through both replies, but it was worth it, because they were both achievements of a modest sporting hue. This is what the messages said:
You once scored 180 in a proper darts match.
You headed some great goals for the Sunday football team.
You may think that I’m just being flippant and self-deprecating but you’d be wrong. Have you done either of those things? Possibly. Both of those things? Maybe. But there are a lot of people that have done neither. And do you know why? Because they’re difficult, that’s why.
I used to be in an office darts team and we played in a league against other companies. I was particularly bad at darts but around the three pint mark I would be relaxed enough, but alert enough, to get the odd treble twenty; and one night in a pub in Aldgate, I got three on the trot. When the first treble chunked in, mildly pleased, I thought “if I can keep in the twenties I might score a hundred here”. But when my second dart also landed in the little red rectangle I was overwhelmed with the pressure of expectation. I didn’t want to move my arm. I thought “if I can just follow my previous aim”, but the effort of concentration was crushing me. There is a narrow road across a causeway in Wales that is dead straight for a mile and a half. On one side there is a stone wall, on the other side oncoming traffic. When I drove across, I found concentrating so intense that halfway I was tempted to slump over the wheel and crash into the wall sobbing “I can’t go on!” So I stopped concentrating and threw the third dart. One hundred and eighty! The pub erupted and everyone bought me a drink. And I thought, “that was easy”. But I never managed it again. But I did head more than one goal.
Sunday morning football is unpleasant. The season never gets going until late September and most other teams in the division fold after Christmas. It is always cold and muddy. The opposition are always psychopathic; they veer from being creepily friendly one moment, to screaming sexual swear words in your ear the next. Amidst all this you have to try and play football. But it is real football; with goals and nets on a full size pitch. Proper kit, a referee and sometimes even linesmen; and always with supporters of the other team - the ones from their pub who are too mad to be allowed to play. And it is aggressive and it is physical; and it is nowhere more intimidating than in the penalty area waiting for a corner. As a centre-back, if we ever won a corner, I would trot up field and take my place in the box; and it would shock me every time. The physical presence of their defenders, lumps every one. The smell of their breath, the steam rising from their heads. The shock of their hard bodies as they backed into me, the sharpness of their elbows, and their weight as they trod on my toes; and in the midst of all this, I used to score goals. With my head.
When I first started playing Sunday football I wasn’t too keen on heading the ball. I played in midfield then and could usually avoid it; but once I started playing at centre-half it was unavoidable. Up against a lot of route one football, heading a ball dropping from the sky felt like a blow from a hammer at first; but I got used to it and quite good at it; and I became quite adept at scoring headed goals from corners. As a corner kick comes curling over, the defender’s main aim is to physically stop you running and jumping to meet the ball. This is fair enough - in Sunday football only the clearest cut fouls receive a penalty. To avoid this, I would back off as the ball came over and loop round to the back of the box. Invariably, our corners were over-hit and just as everyone had measured the kick as a bad one, I would arrive at the back post and catch the ball squarely and sweetly with my forehead to send it across the face of the goal into the far corner of the net. From kick to goal, about three seconds, and when you see a headed goal from a corner on television it looks dull, ordinary, easy. You try it; it’s quite an achievement.