On the Bank Holiday Monday, as I gave a house tour, I knew what it felt like to stand in front of a congregation (of paying tea and tour “punters” in my case) and give a duff sermon. I’m sure priests know that sense of inner failure when they just aren’t “on form”, for whatever reason, and however much passion and zeal they try to bring to illuminating the Gospel, they sense their words – or an attempted joke – falling flat. I blanked for a horrible eight seconds on the upper landing of Upton Cressett, my house in Shropshire, when it came to translating the Latin of Ovid chosen by Shakespeare as the epigraph of Venus and Adonis in 1593.
Normally, I breeze through Marlowe’s translation. But after I got past “Let base-conceited wits admire vile things” my mind seized, like a batsman floundering at the crease.
In my case, I blamed being tired after writing all day and then drinking a bottle of Tanners’ Shiraz (our house wine at the moment) with my father, having a lively discussion about the Brexit Party’s triumph in the European elections, which I argued put Boris Johnson in an almost unassailable lead to be the next Prime Minister regardless of the jealous sniping against him by fellow MPs. (A typical remark will be: “The closer you get to Boris, the less you know him.”). The truth is that, as MPs with marginal seats know, Boris is the Tory Party’s best electoral asset (like him or loathe him) and a showman “winner-takes-all” politician in the tradition of Reagan and Trump.
Is he morally fit for the job of PM? As a Catholic, I’d like to think he has finally redeemed himself after the carnage he has inflicted on himself, his family and others. But I know many MPs are still hesitating to back him as they “simply don’t trust him”. My guess is that expediency and self-interest will win over any such qualms. I certainly hope so. After writing a defence of Boris when he was being written off by the bookies, I placed a bet with Fitzdares on Boris to be next PM at 8-1. He’s now 5-4 favourite.
There’s another reason I would like Boris to triumph. We already have the Thatcher Suite, where Sir Denis and Lady Thatcher stayed with us in our Gatehouse in 1994 – and very popular it is too with our more elderly Conservative-voting holiday let guests. But to have the Johnson Bedroom as well…
Back in the early 1990s, when Boris was the Telegraph’s javelin-throwing Brussels correspondent, he came to stay for a weekend before a party conference in Birmingham. I was working in LA at the time and wasn’t there. I hadn’t known about this until I read Sonia Purnell’s biography of Boris in which a section is devoted to this weekend during which he famously “went missing” (this was before mobiles) and couldn’t be reached by the Telegraph’s irate editor. But which bedroom had Boris slept in? Alas, my mother can’t recall.
When I mentioned this Boris anecdote during my house tour, a wit interrupted: “It may have been more than one!”
Talking of being out of form, I’ve just been reading Mike Brearley’s excellent book, On Form (he prefers this phrase to “in the zone”). It explores the psychology of sport and the art of winning. The book is infused with a spiritual zeal that I found refreshing, with the idea of playing sport well, or performing well, akin to being seized by a form of almost holy rapture. “We are for a moment angels, messengers of God,” Brearley writes. I am sure he is correct about this, as well as when writers and artists are seized (or abandoned) by the creative muse.
When I was an unteachable and cricket-mad teenager at Westminster School in the mid-1980s, the headmaster John Rae drafted in Mike as my “psychiatrist” as they didn’t really know what to do with me. He encouraged me to deal with my overactive imagination by hearing myself think aloud.
I don’t recall discussing religion that much in our sessions but I note that the opening quotation of Brearley’s book is from John 3:8: “The wind bloweth where it listeth.. but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whether it goeth…”. Another is from Luke, 4:23: “Physician, heal thyself.” We all need that sometimes.
With the Cricket World Cup beginning this week, I cannot resist responding to Andreas Campomar’s recent Diary in which he compared the glories of football to religion. Cricket can be equally demanding on fans. Each year, for the opening of the Test series, fans flock – pilgrimage-like – to Lords, the spiritual home of cricket. This year that series will be for the Ashes, a series laden with Christian symbolism.
Yes, there are football “miracles”. But surely there has been no greater sporting miracle than the Headingley Test match of 1981 when England – led by Brearley – managed to turn almost certain defeat against Australia into the unlikeliest of victories thanks to Ian Botham and Bob Willis. Let’s hope for another English miracle at the World Cup.