Cold, Cold War

cold war

What happens if we’re all bluffing, living half a life, churning out an existence which bows to the demands of politics and business?

Philip Larkin said “the eyes clear with age”. He was right. As a consequence, we begin to shut out the noise, no longer chase the pointless – steer clear of bogus thrills.

Table tennis remedies some of the hurt, acts as a part-time panacea, transports the mind to a better place. In its rhythm is joy, health, a beautiful nothingness, a disappearing act.

People play the game with wit accompanying them, the occasional growl and the odd bit of controversy. A night is rarely complete or perfect – just riddled with more good than bad if driving home with a smile.

It is ‘controversy’ which fascinates me the most.

Sport can be a truly dazzling thing capable of mending relations as in the case of the Sino-American thaw in 1971; Cold War tensions eased by the friendship between table tennis players, Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan.

It can also muddy itself, exampled in 1969 by the Marylebone Cricket Club’s refusal to allow the mixed-race player, Basil D’Oliveira play for England against South Africa thus indirectly condoning the apartheid regime.

Boxing, of course, is not without its demons – unbeaten US fighter, Joe Louis (24-0) defeated by Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1936; Schmeling lauded by the Nazi Party as a symbol of Aryan supremacy.

American writer, Langston Hughes echoed part of his nation’s mood at the time: “I walked down Seventh Avenue and saw grown men weeping like children, and women sitting on the curbs with their head in their hands. All across the country that night when the news came out that Joe was knocked out, people cried.”

Such magnitude and meaning I have yet to witness in the table tennis halls of Bolton, however it prompts bigger questions over politics and rights within sport. On the outside, sport has embraced physical disabilities and differences. At a local level I regularly play against Asians, whites, blacks, people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism. It is the norm – nothing unusual, nothing new, something that arouses only bigots.

But start talking politics, start getting inside a person, and it often ends in a rumble. Some people confuse reasoned arguments (or dialectics) with feuds. Some are hard-wired not to listen at all – see between the black and the white, or the numerous religious scriptures.

Little known is that Schmeling actually had a Jewish American manager (Joe Jacobs) but was trapped by the ideology of the day. Muhammad Ali, not all hero, was so consumed by the Nation of Islam that he chose not to mourn the assassination of the reformed Malcolm X in 1965. Two years later, a maturer Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, laudably costing him his freedom.

This week’s column was meant to be about a leftwing table tennis player who I happened to meet earlier this year. I then realised – and he concurred – that by printing his name and espousing his thoughts it might compromise his position of employment.

The default 21st century political position is not yet common sense and kindliness it would appear, but something still aligned to the interests of the day – a never-ending track to nowhere.

Perhaps one day change will come after the remaining dogs are driven out. Perhaps.

Duncan, The Diamond and The Lip


The stand out, plum fixture of the table tennis calendar’s opening week is Hilton ‘E’ versus Hilton ‘D’. The latter, captained by Andrew Morey, cleaned up Division Two last season yet worries now permeate the camp that ex-player Craig Duncan’s new team will make a mockery of the Hilton ranking system.

Win percentages mostly do not lie. Minh Le (73%), Stephen Hunt (48%) and Morey (81%) can expect the usual dilution of their stats now they are a division higher, however more worrisome is the imminent match on September 3rd versus Division One foes Wilson Parker (93%), Duncan (87%) and Josh Sandford (50%).

If Sandford raises his game and shouts a little less (or more), then this first fixture could be discomfiting for Hilton ‘D’ – a psychological hammerblow just days into the 2014/15 winter season.

Hilton ‘E’ is a team whose combined personalities have not tread the circuit for some time. Rich in horseplay, humour, intensity and steel, its three amigos ask you to indulge them, stand back while the fireworks go off – respect not their antics but the grounded sorcery which they bring to the table.

Duncan, a southpaw, schooled in the French sassiness of Lads’ Club import and coach, Roger Bertrand believes the time is right for an assault. His fleeting appearances in the league – a mere 9 in 2011/12, zero in 2012/13 and 15 in 2013/14 – conceal a wider truth. Although not ‘match fit’, he is hungry, slavering in anticipation of a full season.

The record book shows that his pithy efforts for the soon-to-be enemy were timely and repartee-like. Dispatching Division Two’s finest, Alan Lansdale, Krishna Chauhan and new compatriot, Wilson Parker, Duncan’s form was almost too impressive, ‘rigged’ and ridiculous (symptomatic of a secret training camp). The only black marks were against Ramsbottom ringer, Neil Booth and Meadow Ben’s hard-hitting bull, Philip Calvert.

Duncan last played Morey, Le and Hunt competitively on 10th February 2012 – beating Hunt only. Two and a half years on, his awkward style is expected to pick off all three players – avenging two four-set defeats in the process.

Parker, the youngest member of Hilton ‘E’ at seventeen, yet probably their most serious player is a fine example of how to fast-track a rough diamond. With only two seasons under his belt, his stats are incomparable in the middle divisions: 96% (Div3:2012/13); 93% (Div2:2013/14). Ready now to climb even further, Parker is the face, the consequence of good coaching.

And then there is Sandford – the third wheel in the operation. He reminds you a little of Cassius Clay, the Louisville Lip pre-Sonny Liston half a century ago. He talks a big game, disses the opposition, yet the more you witness such behaviour, the more you realise it is an act of affection.

Sandford cannot for one second drop his guard, his facial gizmos, his play-acting. Even at work you get the feeling his horsing around keeps him sane. He is centre stage – Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth – yet a different clock ticks inside him when alone.

In his mind he is writing his next wacky script. Sure – most of his words are arbitrary, off the cuff, impromptu, but the core are constructed. He is constructed. Like a clown inside the big top; a painted sneer instead of a smile.

Will he guide Hilton ‘E’ to glory? If the bat is working – yes.


The Third Tier

Fleetwood Town 2 Crewe Alexandra 1

Games flicker into life, gas you like an old-fashioned dentist or run on a mediocre generator – their energy and liveliness sufficient yet far from tantalizing.

This third tier feast was always going to disturb the purists, ruffle the expectations of 7-Eleven fantasists and mess with the nerves of those simply grateful for such a mountainous view.

Fleetwood Town, the miracle club, anchored unofficially by the barrel-chested wonder, Antoni Sarcevic was a collection of players on the hour mark somehow already comfortable in its new pond, sophisticated like a wine-quaffing surgeon.

Two-nil up, Jamie Proctor’s influence as subtle as it was devastating, the Cod Army seemed set to dish out a masterclass in composure and interplay: the roving expertise of Josh Morris in particular seismic and surfboard-like.

Play at this level is at times confusing. There appears to be more space than in League Two – less hustle and bustle. The need for a strict 4-4-2 is dampened by the interchangeability of a ‘total football’ personnel.

Graham Alexander’s troops were today certainly re-shaped into an unusual unit: Conor McLaughlin at left back; Sarcevic wide right; Gareth Evans playing in the middle. But underpinning this was Alexander’s faith in his fullback and the need to stiffen midfield when employing two strikers.

Moments elapsed – times when Fleetwood’s susceptibility was bound to show, its backline bound to creak: Pond’s outstretched leg preventing a goal-bound Crewe effort in the 13th minute; McLaughlin’s slip (16) almost inviting a Railwaymen choo choo.

But then came the ramped-up sound from the top of the kop, the Memorial Stand – a back-of-the-throat warbling of ‘O’s: “O…o…o…o…o…oooo…o…o”; meaningless to some, dramatic to others – a carrier of dreams and higher stations.

It cued, prompted, bugled the charge. Sarcevic, his swerving run plagiarized from ballroom floors, crossing from the right (22) for David Ball. Bally sneaking the round piece of leather just left of the post.

Again, Sarcevic though (25) – Crewe’s keeper, Scott Shearer running out like a rampaging mad man. Sarcevic – a tiny dink slightly wide, knowing which shot to employ, moving the ball in the manner of an artiste.

A brief flurry then from the team disciplined in the right kind of football – the ball rarely rocketing up from the Highbury turf: Vadaine Oliver, Crewe’s no.9, firing in from the right (26) of the box only for trusted Chris Maxwell to swallow the ball up in a committed yet clutching and manageable dive to his left post.

Two minutes later the Cod Army crossbar rattled – Ollie Turton’s strike never dipping enough but threatening all the same; a sign of intent in the barren game thus far. Seconds later, Maxwell called on again. Another down to his left – the St Asaph man merely there to watch it go wide, however.

An open game – there to be wrestled under control, bewitched by skilful elements. And what better man than Ball – his haircut replicated in the stands like a Russian doll. A teasing cross, loan signing and new no.9 Stephen Dobbie the receiver (36). A collision though – such weighted brilliance not heralded in the way the packed stands would have liked.

A swing yet again soon after – the to-ing and fro-ing of power back with Crewe: Liam Hogan skinned (42) by Bradden Inman but all to no avail. Ominous – a sign of failings / penalties to come. But after a whack to Hogan’s jaw (44), the coup, the transformation, Fleetwood’s new life fresh from the test tube.

Dobbie off. Proctor on. A brief scare courtesy of the stanchion caressed (47) by Billy Waters, but the riposte – so swift, so precise, from nowhere. A shuffle of the feet…Proctor’s big man poise, Cantona-esque, Dzeko-esque, and Ball is in – goal! Eloquence in the six-yard box (48).

Proctor – hanging around on the left, expending little energy, clever, a quiet ebullience to him, prodigious. Suddenly – bang! The top right corner of the net bulging. Faces amongst the track-suited ranks of Fleetwood’s youth spellbound, pleasantly traumatized.

Where did that come from? A stern rotation of the right leg, a gift from the gods? Questions reverberate. Is this the new Varney? Is the returning Lancashire man set to rip this division apart?

Too many unknowns. Qualities emanate from him like a fine fish dressed up on a plate. He is an individualist. He is impatient. He is mercurial. Can he walk past a centre half though? Can he spark a wily script most weeks?

Sarcevic, the Italian and Serbian conqueror, can have a word in his ear: Have enough bruisers around you. Understand where the walls on the pitch are positioned. Tirelessly strive to invent, nutmeg and humiliate the opposition (77 & 88). But mostly, don’t moan – just believe. Keep at them. Keep going, rolling the ball – finding the red and white shirts.



El Borrachos


If there was to be a raid on the table tennis community – bats stolen, an Italian Job of sorts – then it would be here, outside The Crown (1 Chorley New Road). Or a mile up the road (B6226) at the Bank Top Brewery Ale House (36 Church Street).

Both public houses are frequented by the cream of Bolton’s table tennis world. Both offer sustenance to weary players intent on forgetting the more rueful moments of their drills and practice sessions.

Notable patrons – be they politicians, artists or sportsmen – have congregated in certain spots since time immemorial. Public officials wag their tongues in The Red Lion, the Marquis of Granby and the Commons Strangers’ Bar in and around Westminster. Writers latch on to the faded footprints of the literary masters whose regular haunts included Kennedy’s in Dublin, the Vesuvio Café in San Francisco and Les Deux Magots in Paris.

Inside Horwich’s modest watering holes sit two motley crews – paddles thrown in the boots of their cars or lovingly placed in the glove compartments, sweat temporarily masked by the deodorant from a selection of canisters.

The Alan Ingerson crew generally comprises Dave Scowcroft, Steve Hathaway and occasional invitee Steve Barber. Promotion and relegation in the ranks this season has meant a swapping of status for the players; Barber giving up his Premier Division mantle – allowing the Hilton ‘B’ gents a shot at survival in 2014/15. For Ingerson, banditing his way around Division Three in 2012/13 after a long lay-off, it is a minor miracle.

Opposite the Parish Church of Holy Trinity they convene – on the chairs, stools and red-chequered banquette of the Ale House, elbows shifting in order to raise their pints. Formerly the Brown Cow, this new-found table tennis haven and resting place is a curious modern phenomenon, a refurbishment gamble left to the locals to judge.

It borrows some of its grandeur from the Francis Octavius Bedford gothic-designed Holy Trinity across the road, yet there are still small touches which clamour for your attention: the beautifully curved bar, the simple chalk boards (Today’s Real Cider/Summertime Specials), the square lamp shades and the twenty-three white light switches on a single brass plate. Also, the Sterling & Noble clock with Roman numerals – tilted slightly to the right, but beguilingly so.

Away from here, from the ash and sycamore that greet you as you exit, it is a roll downhill, then onto the flat before arriving at The Crown. Motion never quite leaves you if sat at the front of this establishment in the bay window – the old Wigan B5238 sign on the grass roundabout outside directing drivers new to the parish.

A fir tree is plonked on this spot awaiting Christmas decorations that will brighten up the area. For now, however, Brett Haslam and his seven borrachos (Dennis Collier, John Bradbury, Dave Smith, Jim Chadwick, Mick Dore, Phil Riley and Steve Barber) provide the necessary exuberance.

This isn’t a fancy pub. In many ways it is trepidatious – the sign on the wall next to the huge sash windows stating PLEASE DO NOT CLOSE THE CURTAIN. The tables, separated like planets, orbit the bar. Candelabras hang from the ceiling. Flashing fruit machines beckon victims. Willow-pattern plates snuggle up next to Horwich Harriers.

Walk in late on a Thursday and you witness history: table tennis’s Ernest Hemingway gabbing away.