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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Monday, June 30, 2008

They say great authors should always be capable of surprising you, and it was certainly a surprise to find one of my favourite authors, subject of a couple of thesis chapters and numerous blog posts, announcing her love of football in the Observer this weekend:
I watch for aesthetic reasons. Some are to do with real dramatic tension. There is a story, and the end is really unknown until it comes. I have worked out that I also watch as though I was watching a kinetic sculpture or abstract light show. The things I watch are all contained in quadrilaterals, concern the movement of round balls, and the shifting lines of force and energy made by the players' movements. The games I care about are snooker, tennis, and football. The rules of rugby have changed to make the movements more fluid and exciting for the TV viewer so sometimes I watch that too. But I cannot get interested in, say, motor racing or golf.
Watching Spain win Euro 2008 last night certainly had both the aesthetic and the dramatic in abundance. If England are the perennial whiners of world football, Spain are genuine underachievers, but this made it more remarkable that there was in them a certain confidence or self-belief, of a greater depth even than Germany, who were coming to this final whilst being technically an average team. There was a real sportsman's satisfaction in watching Spain set up their intricate triangles, but the fluidly "shifting lines of force" also provided a dramatic satisfaction: as they knotted and weaved the ball around German defenders, the final gave the same sense as the tying up of the loose ends of a Shakespearean sexual comedy. There would have been nothing more untidy, more unfitting, than a German win, neat and efficient though it would no doubt have been.

But in spite of the way in which yesterday's final gave me a sense of pleasure both as a fan and an aesthete, I fear I cannot help but feel snooty about A.S. Byatt's enjoyment of football. Writers should, certainly, enjoy cricket, with its slowly accumulating tension lending itself to a day spent reading (or writing) a novel in the sunshine of Lords. However, I simply cannot imagine A.S. Byatt, cultured and eloquent as she is, shouting at the television or applauding a dive that wins a last-minute penalty kick. Of course, I am entirely guilty of stereotyping, and reading Byatt's piece I am forced to recall a comparable passage from her novel, A Whistling Woman, in which Frederica (the character most analogous to Byatt herself) records her fascination with her first television, on which she watches "Tennis on green grass with white figures and the geometry of the court contained and constantly in movement in the geometry of the box."

As I am writing this immediately after watching Andy Murray beat Richard Gasquet in the fourth round of Wimbledon, I am more easily inclined to see how Byatt's love of tennis might reflect and inform her artistic interest. We have, of course, become used to "Henmania," with its temporary congregation believing that it is better to come close and lose nerve at the last, than to maintain a sense of self-belief throughout the match. Henman certainly evoked fear and pity, but they were not quite the right kind for the tragic hero they felt he was. The fear was more that we were deluding ourselves in maintaining the belief that he could reach a Wimbledon final; the pity was not for how far he had fallen, but for how far he had yet to climb to reach our annual expectations.

As Henman was ensconced in the commentary box, however, it became clearer how superficial Henmania had been. Certainly, Murray too looked to be down and out after losing the first two sets, before he began his comeback. However, there is in Murray a bloody fierceness that Henman lacked in his white costume, and it manifests itself in his ability to play brilliant tennis not just with the occasional volley, but with a sequence of five or six points that are breathtakingly audacious.

For all that Murray's tennis broke Gasquet's powerful returns, shattered his rhythm, and set the pace deliciously and relentlessly on his side, there was still a possibility of a fall lurking in the background - or, rather, later in the ticking clock. It was Henman's unconscious presence that took it from mere excitement to a total Aristotelian drama. For as the evening light began to draw in, in the back of everyone's mind was, surely, that match in 2001 against Ivanisavic, when Henman had come from a game down to win two sets through astonishing tennis, only for rain to push the game to the next day, at which point he capitulated.

Today, then, eyes flicked between the court and the umpire. Even if the players on the former were finding it hard to see visually, could the latter not see or feel the aesthetics of the event, the lines of force building and curving it towards a climax just as the curtain of night fell? Did he not realise that putting the game off until the next day, with a new crowd and fresh players' legs, would be equivalent to dropping the curtain mid-way through Lear's final speech? Luckily, the umpire (and Murray) held his nerve, and with what would have been the final game of the night the young Scot came through. Though I am sure she would have expressed it with exceptional acumen, A.S. Byatt will not have been the only one attuned to the drama of this Wimbledon act. In its greatest guises, as in the European cup final or Murray's fourth round win, the players alone must write the script.

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