From the point of view of religion, Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) must have seemed a divisive figure in his prime. From the age of 17, he eschewed the Christian faith of his family to embrace the Nation of Islam, an esoteric cult which seemed to mirror the ideas of apartheid. Under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam preached separation of the black and white races. And that white civilisation, aided and abetted by Christianity, was the Devil’s doing. So, not exactly ecumenical!
But many of Ali’s admirers – and he came to be adored, all over the world – would brush some of these extreme notions aside as merely rhetoric to draw attention to the oppressed position of “the black man” in America in the 1960s.
And he certainly did that most effectively: his braggadaccio was considered brilliant and entertaining, and his unique self-confidence surely provided uplift for those who watched him.
Ali was not only an extraordinary boxer – his claim to being “the greatest ever” was no empty boast – but it could be said that he saved the entire sport of pugilism from being banned.
From the late 1950s onwards, pressure was on to halt boxing as a sport, increasingly viewed as violent, degrading and medically unsafe. Both Sweden and Norway banned professional boxing, and in the House of Commons the MP Edith Summerskill tirelessly campaigned to have it outlawed in Britain. She wrote a book called The Ignoble Art and introduced two Private Members’ Bills in Parliament to have it prohibited. The wind was in her sails, and it looked as though all the great and the good would agree with her: she was supported by her daughter Shirley, also an MP, and by many in the medical profession.
And then Muhammad Ali hit the world stage, and took possession of the art of the pugilist. Not only that, but he associated it most particularly with the triumph of the black man.
Were it not for Ali’s dazzle, boxing probably would have gone on to be prohibited in the UK, Canada, and Australia – possibly even America. But race trumped Dr Summerskill’s paternalism, and once Ali became a globalised celebrity her cause hadn’t a chance.
The Summerskills did help to bring in safer rules around boxing, and Ali’s subsequent trauma-induced Parkinson’s was evidence that brain damage could indeed be a hazard. Yet Ali’s sport will never come under the prohibition the Summerskills yearned for: its association with the triumph of the black man is
In his television interview last Sunday, former prime minister Sir John Major wondered whether Boris Johnson “had a day trip to Damascus”.
In our more secular age, I’m not sure that all viewers will have understood that this was a reference to St Paul’s epiphany of conversion on the road to Damascus.
Sir John, who favours Britain remaining within the EU, was in critical mood towards Boris, who, of course is a prominent member of the Leave campaign.
Actually, I can answer Sir John’s rhetorical question: Boris Johnson’s position on the EU is no Damascene conversion. I worked for the Sunday Telegraph in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Boris was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels, and his reports were frequently witheringly derogatory. The reader would have concluded Boris thought the Brussels set-up a complete racket. He became one of the biggest influences on the Eurosceptic tendency.
Whether Boris is right or wrong will naturally be a matter of opinion (and the nation’s opinion will become clear after June 23), but I believe his approach has always been consistent, and in urging a vote Leave, he is being sincere.
One of George Bernard Shaw’s finer campaigns was for access to public lavatories, back in the 1890s. Regrettably, over the past 10 years 1,782 municipally funded facilities have closed. Town councils seem to have flogged many of them off for profit. This can be – literally – desperate for older people. I notice that churches are beginning to offer a convenience, and that’s a good thing. But it’s shameful that public toilets have so often been subject to
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