It struck me a while ago that the yardstick against which our civilisation is measured tends towards the abstract. We used to evaluate the ability of great men (and they are nearly always men in these cases) to write poetry, compose music, produce pieces of visual art or spew forth great tracts of prose in order to compare civ A against civ B. Occasionally the cultural mavens might have permitted the introduction of architecture or engineering to this points-scoring contest, and very occasionally indeed might degrees of sporting prowess be allowed a look-in. Obviously, the whole point of the exercise was to mask the senseless waste of human life which was typically the key feature in the rise of any group of ennobled warlords in the time before the age of enlightenment, and in the case of the British Empire, the time after it as well.
With its two great wars the Twentieth Century saw the rise of a new proxy for the sophistication of ones’ civilisation, to wit, sport. The Nazis had cast the mould for a successful Olympics in 1936, so that by the onset of the Cold War every nation understood the mission – the world will evaluate the capability of your country and those of your bloc to keep your citizens healthy, well-fed, enlightened and fulfilled by the ability of a small group of those same citizens to throw, catch, run after, run round, jump over, sail, ride or hit various things. In the case of the host nation, the opulence of the opening ceremony, stadia and facilities provided is also taken into account. Of course, in ancient times the Olympic Games encompassed more than just events of skill, strength, speed and home-brewed pharmaceuticals, the Greek Games in many ways resembling a Welsh Eisteddfod with song, drama and declamation included in the running-order. In Europe we still hold a dedicated annual song contest and considering the recent performance of the United Kingdom that competition is a reasonable measure of national talent.
My beef, if beef is the appropriate aphorism at this point, is this; none of these events measure the competence of the represented nation-states to actually take care of their people. Recently, this ability has been sorely tested by the current state of awful awfulness and from time to time I wonder whether it’s the sort of thing which comes up in No 10 or Pennsylvania Avenue. This week we saw the leaders of seven of the wealthiest and most influential countries on Earth meet in a very nice Hotel in Corbis Bay (I have to admit to once spending a long weekend there observing the rainfall patterns in St Ives), however my betting is that they did not hold a Gala Evening at this event with a comedian such as Jimmy Carr or Ricky Gervais handing out awards for Doing The Best Job At Beating This Thing, Having a Really Serious Go at Making People Happy or Making an Effort To Not Bang On About Oneself All The Time.
But what, I hear you ask, about the Beautiful Game? Surely, we are about to witness titans triumph in a tournament of turf, a circus of skill and cunning, the intelligent intricacy of running the gauntlet to gain an advantage. We will see clean play and opportunism, dazzling in the attack, muscular in defence, all played out on the international stage. Surely this sport, above all others is the true expression of the national character, the beautiful game bringing out the best and worst in every player, permitting us to judge the state of the nation from whence they came. Our delight at such a contest can only have been sharpened in anticipation due to the postponement of the competition from last year, due the current awful awfulness. I therefore encourage you, if at all possible to secure one of the remaining tickets and join the many delirious fans who will be attending the fiftieth International Croquet Tournament in Lammas Park, Ealing.
Would that the Olympic Games still included Poetry in its roster of exploits, if so, the Great British Team would surely feature any number of limber, highly-trained bards from the Pitshanger Poets. This week Martin Choules led the squad out onto the virtual pitch with a poem focussing on squares, man, raising the possibility that his writing style is a good deal more ‘beat’ and ‘groovy’ than one might at first discern. Rithika Nadipalli stepped up to the oche next, to give us another round of her slightly fantastical imagining of William Blake, reincarnated as a goat as a reward for what she regards as a smidge of heresy in Songs of Innocence and Experience. Meanwhile, John Hurley was warming up on the touch-line to deliver strength to the mid-field, reading his somewhat downbeat piece about insomnia. Finally, Nick Barth went on the attack with a scathing poem reflecting on the daily risk to asylum-seekers as they take to the seas in tiny boats to come to these islands.
In fact, the history of poetry competitions at the Olympic Games reflects the history of poetry competitions the world over. Father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin saw the games as a reflection of his own ideals and proposed the inclusion of medals for literature, music, painting and architecture. Following from this decision, art would exist as an uncomfortable bedfellow alongside sport in the next half-century of organised games. Due to poor organisation the arts hardly got a look-in in London in 1908, and while the Pitshanger Poets proposed taking a charabanc, megaphone, picnic hamper and monogrammed banner to the games, many poets baulked at having only a year from the announcement of the competition in 1907 to the event in 1908 to prepare their entries. As a result, the Poetry Gold Medal was awarded to Robert Frost for the USA, who at a youthful 33 years old could churn out a decent short piece in a matter of months. Competition poetry is a young person’s game.
The Pitshanger Poets prepared well for Stockholm in 1912 and gave a good account of themselves, but then the Great War interrupted competition poetry. On the outbreak of hostilities all scribes were required to turn their hands to the vital task of creating enough War Poetry to fill Eng. Lit syllabuses for many decades to come. The PP held out more hope for a return to normality in the 1924 Games in Paris, an event which promised much in its encouragement of the arts. However, a last-minute rule change requiring that all entries were to be written in French discounted many in team GB and virtually handed the Gold to Anatole France, who despite being unable to write and somewhat close to death, had a great body of work and the right surname. The all-French team of judges were suitably won over and named their champion. The downcast Pitshanger Poets returned home and regretfully ceased their involvement with team GB just in time to avoid an all-expenses paid trip to the Third Reich. By the time the dust had settled following the Second World War, the International Olympic Committee had decided to end the Games’ relationship with the arts, on the basis that the Olympics were a solely amateur competition but that artists were paid professionals. Professionals? Clearly no one in the IOC had ever met an actual, jobbing poet.
If you have been, thank you for reading.