I was lying in my bath last night reading a yellowing, dog eared paperback when something unexpected popped up. The tome in question, I should add, is the rather excellent To Sea In A Sieve by Peter Bull. First published in 1956 it is an unvarnished account of the author’s experience in the Royal Navy throughout World War Two.
I enjoy these little known, unfashionable books for their own sake and for the necessary colour and detail they bring to our understanding of that terrible conflict. One cannot properly appreciate the almost abstract nature of historical accounts when they glibly speak of hundreds of men here and thousands of men there, but when you read an everyday and above all ordinary tale of the day to day experiences of just one of the combatants it puts flesh on the otherwise cold statistical bones.
Anyway, the thing which popped up you’ll no doubt be delighted to learn was a coincidence and nothing more shocking than that. The author was recounting time spent in his tiny craft at anchor in Anzio Bay, almost entirely defenceless from the shelling of shore batteries and surrounded by air dropped mines. He was understandably completely terrified, and, as the days dragged into weeks, he staved off the urge to leap into the sea and swim away by, among other things, games of patience.
He would make appalling bets on the outcome of these games. If I fail to get out this time we will be sunk today, if I succeed we’ll survive, that kind of thing. It struck me how similar our behaviours can be in times of dreadful torment as in times of relative comfort and tranquillity.
I have, for as long as I’ve followed football, been prey to silly superstitions which I would laugh at in any other aspect of my life. Go to the toilet in the pub during a game and I am guaranteed to miss a goal. If my wife enters the room and the opposition contrive somehow to score then clearly it is her fault. This last has become so ingrained that Liz happily accepts responsibility now whereas once she may have protested. She claims it’s worth it for the times she causes an Arsenal goal to be scored by walking in or phoning at the decisive moment.
I too have played games of chance or skill before a match convinced that the outcome of one depends upon my fortune in the other. It’s ridiculous I know, but reading of that poor man, an actor in civilian life who found himself suddenly faced with the prospect of not only his own violent death but also that of those men he’d grown to know and revere above all others, behaving in the self same way reassured me that perhaps I was, if not sane, then at least not alone.
I don’t know what rituals you may feel necessary to bring about a return to winning ways after the rather damp squib of a game on Wednesday, but I hope they prove successful. The end of an unbeaten run is of course a depressing turn of events and I wonder if we don’t feel every disappointment a little more keenly in 2016 given what a dreadful year it has been. The obituary writers have been working flat out, the political landscape has been painted in dark and drear tones and at such times the distraction of sport seems like a convenient piece of buoyant flotsam to a man adrift.
In many ways I find the contrast between the life and death struggles people endure now and those others have endured in the past shines an unflattering if not downright embarrassing light onto our silly tantrums over what is at the end of the day just a game. It’s not much of an excuse to say that we have invested a lot of years or much money in our fervent support when truly we ought to be grateful to have lived lives so free from genuine harm to enable us to indulge ourselves in such frippery.
But then I read how passionate were the games of both baseball and cricket between the crews of the British ship and their American allies during moments away from the action, and I realise that they took their sport every bit as seriously as we do now. So as you fill your lucky mug, wonder if a late kick off is a charmed or unlucky thing, put on your lucky socks or offer up a sacrifice of burnt toast this morning don’t be alarmed at your palpably loopy behaviour. It is perfectly natural.
When the outcome of that which we endow with great importance is beyond our control. When we feel powerless. When our own pathetic insignificance in the grand tragedy of human existence is brought forcibly home to us. These are the times when we turn to the supernatural no matter how rational we might prefer to think ourselves to be.
We happy few cannot hope to influence events at the London Stadium today. Not beyond countering the negative miasma through which the players must peer if they make the mistake of perusing the on-line Arsenal debate. Maybe one or two will be able to raise a cheer of encouragement from the stands but otherwise we will not be of much import when the teams face off at five thirty this afternoon.
You know and I know that it is down to the eleven men on the field to get the job done today and put that smile back on our faces. They won’t do it for that reason – of course not – they’ll do it because they’re professional sportsmen who hate to lose, because of camaraderie, team spirit and for the manager who has placed his faith in them.
None of which is actually far removed from the reasons Peter Bull gave for the stubborn refusal to break which he and the young men under his command displayed as the shells fell around them in that beautiful Italian bay all those years ago. Win or lose today we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that it really isn’t life or death. There are no ‘must win’ games and perhaps we might count our blessings that the happiness and despair of our lives hinge on such indescribably petty and above all transient events.