James Delingpole

Books are a load of crap - the sporty kids have got it made

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

What a glorious sporting summer it has been so far. For some the highlight will have been Andy Murray at Wimbledon, for others that nailbiting first Test against the Aussies. But for me, none of this comes even close to matching the joy, the exultation, the triumph of the moment on an Atlantic beach a few days ago when our hot young female Portuguese surf instructor took Girl and me aside to comment on our morning’s performance. ‘You, Poppy, and you, James, are both good,’ she said.

That’s ‘good’ as in the exact opposite of ‘bad’. Indeed that’s good, quite possibly, as in — though she didn’t actually express this verbally — ‘You are the most amazingly naturally talented beginner surfer it has ever been my privilege to teach. I can’t believe you are nearly 48 years old. You have the body of a young Spartan, the agility of a cheetah, and the sticking power of an ibex on the wall of that dam in Italy that was all over the internet recently. Give it another couple of weeks and we’ll have you tackling that 100 foot wave just up the road from here in Nazaré, easy.’

Mind you, I think it’s lucky that she didn’t state what she was clearly thinking, because had she done so my heart would have burst on the spot with pure delight. This is one of the curses of being born a not-especially-sporty person — one of the curses of being human, now I think about it: the talents you all too often crave most are the ones most furthest from your reach.

For example, never once in my life have I spent even a fraction of a millisecond wishing I could be better at English. I’m not saying I’m the new William Cobbett meets George Orwell meets H.L. Mencken and PJ O’Rourke, necessarily. But I’ve rarely found writing much of a problem, let us just say. So little trouble do I have with my literary facility, indeed, that I quite despise it. If I weren’t so maddeningly OK at writing, I occasionally torture myself, then I might have ended up in a job that pays a living wage.


My progeny, I’ve been appalled to discover recently, suffer the same curse. When their school reports came in, I was genuinely upset by how well they were doing in English. ‘Why can’t you be good at something sodding useful like maths or physics,’ I asked them. (There is a counterargument to this. That English is the most important subject of all. Have I written that one yet?) ‘And what’s the point of spending all that money on your education if you’re just going to end up like your parents?’

Luckily, Girl doesn’t want to be an author or a ruddy journalist, she has just told me. She wants to be a professional tennis player. Most fathers’ hearts, I dare say, would sink at this prospect: the endless ferrying to and from county matches and training sessions; the weird status of being a Tennis Dad; the inevitable disappointment when, after all that effort, it turns out that your bestest, darlingest girl doesn’t quite have what it takes to be world No. 1.

Personally, though, I think it’s bloody great that Girl has such fantastical aspirations, because I’m sure she’ll end up much more happy and fulfilled. I don’t mean the Wimbledon bit: never going to happen because I’m not going to do the Tennis Dad thing, so she’s stuffed. But simply by being obsessive enough to want to get to play a sport — any sport — to a high level, she will have set herself up for life.

I’ve reached the age now where you look around at your old friends and contemporaries, see who’s done well, who hasn’t, and what you quickly realise is that academic ability has very little to do with anything. A string of decent grades may get you into a decent university but it can also make you complacent, give you a sense of misplaced entitlement and take away the hunger (or maybe the protective carapace of stupidity) that drives lesser intellects to greater -success.

Being good at a sport, on the other hand — now there’s the thing. My Uncle Perce, for example, is no thicko but his successful business career was most definitely built on the golf course rather than on anything he may have picked up at Stourbridge grammar. He’s now chairman of Worcester County Cricket club, which gives you an idea of where his life priorities lie — and where they always have done.

God, I wish I’d paid more attention to him when I was younger. If only I’d known then what I know now: that time spent honing your sporting skills, now matter how maladroit or lacking in ball sense you may be, is never time wasted. It makes your fellow men admire you (or, better still, be jealous of you); it makes women much more likely to go to bed with you; it brings you more trade; it makes you more contacts; it makes you richer, fitter, more suntanned, longer-lived. And the most outrageous thing of all is — apart from all these tremendous side benefits — it’s actually fun too.

Tell me, someone, and be honest now: is 47-and-a-half too late to be contemplating a career as a professional surfer?

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  • E Hart

    Very enjoyable. Is it too late? No, not if you don’t mind coming up the beach on your back caked in blood and cockle shards or crawling out of the surf on all fours. If you are serious in your desire for humiliation, you need to tool up with a Flying Sea Badger – a board that’ll give you as much control of your experience as the surf will allow. It’ll also double as a stretcher.

  • Teacher

    ‘There is a counterargument to this. That English is the most important subject of all.’. Well, yes, after 34 years of teaching it, there is no question that the subject which is the medium through which we think and communicate is the test subject which identifies and hones the brightest students. Often the students in the top English set who could have walked an A level and aced top grades chose do do maths, sciences and languages instead – because they could.

    Alas, both of my children have the English gene ( both of them knew and used over a hundred words before they were one, one reading his first word at the age of two, the other ending up with a first in English at Exeter) and are so adept at debate and argument that I have not been able to get them to do a damn thing I wanted since they were virtually infants. As for jobs, one has found the subject useful and the other … it helps with each task but hasn’t brought permanent employment.

    One comfort for parents of children good at English, however, is to have witty, entertaining, articulate, conversable, well read and mature offspring quite unlike their peers who are often a trial to be with. Had ‘Girl’ JUST been good at sport, believe me, you would not have been so pleased.

    • statechaos

      ‘there is no question that the subject which is the medium through which we think and communicate is the test subject which identifies and hones the brightest students’

      Not if you’re dyslexic it isn’t. My daughter was diagnosed at the age of 8 because of difficulty reading and writing and yet at the same time showing great proficiency at Maths. She is now at a top university studying chemistry and her achievement of a B grade in English Language GCSE was like an A* to us.
      I don’t think Albert Einstein would have agreed with your analysis either.

    • You’re quite right of course. Being able to enjoy civilised conversations with one’s children is indeed a rare privilege. Also, more and more, I realise that the critical thinking encouraged by the study of English literature is something to be cherished. It’s currently undervalued according to the prevailing cultural meme – promulgated by the BBC especially – which would have us believe that the chosen ones and the keepers of the flame of truth are all scientists. Personally I don’t think it need be an either/or.

      • Teacher

        Indeed. Respec’ surfer dude.

  • tolpuddle1

    Yes – ride that surf while the Germans and Chinese have the learning and intelligence actually to make things. In our bubble economy, does Uncle Perce make anything (except money for himself) ?

    No wonder Britain and the US are going down.

  • Terry Field

    WHo can doubt the permanent eclipse of Britain, and the disappearance of anything worthwhile it may have represented.

  • rtj1211

    Actually, it’s not always due to the lack of hunger, it’s simply that the less swotty ones get years of cramming in classes/lectures whereas those of us who could teach ourselves the bookwork could have done with years and years of practical dexterity training, negotiation training, training in selling yourself etc.

    I was a fucking genius at seeing scientific reality, but I was so fucking useless at actually doing the experiments to prove it so that I was a complete failure as a scientist. The ones who succeeded were almost all far my intellectual inferior, but they could get the bench work to work 10 times faster. In biology, that’s crucial. If I hadn’t been so hungry, I’d have told my parents to stick their fantasies where the sun don’t shine and gone off and worked as a ski rep for 7 years after Uni. I was bloody good at that, taught me people skills, I could sell ski holidays because I loved skiing (I couldn’t sell things I hated, can you??) and because I was good enough on a set of planks and knew a lot about mountains and weather, women thought I was quite OK out there. Delingpole’s torture chamber for rtj would be plonking him on a beach in Ibiza with randy women and getting humiliated enough to jump off a cliff.

    There’s also this issue about spying; if you’re a bit thick, you learn the necessity for spying young. It’s basically middle class theft, burglary, crime. But it seems to be so common now that not to accept it is like being a quaker in Nazi germany: you get ostracised before being expelled to the East.

    That’s what ‘ambition’ is actually about: embracing the mafia criminality which is ubiquitous in ‘professional services’. I simply can’t abide the hypocrisy of ostracising a 20 year old for filching an essay or sexing up some lab results whilst stealing the insights of competitors from computers as a Professor. Trust me, every Professor at Leeds University would kill themselves if that were the punishment for doing it. Every last one of them. And they call themselves ‘luminaries’, ‘leading scientists’ or the like?? They’re just a bunch of grant-chasing Tammany Hall shysters. Nothing unique about Leeds, happens at the Golden Triangle too.

    Is that what you want for your kids??

    I know more about more things than most, but I have never given my consent for electronic bugging by anyone simply by sending them my email address, nor by registering at sites like Facebook, gmail or the like. Never. It’s anathema to me that anyone should be outside of a prison being allowed to do that. I’ve never done it to anyone else and everything I know I learned the hard way.

    For me, the internet is doom. Thickos can steal everything from your PC if you ever connect it to the internet. That thickness is relative of course. If they were really thick, they wouldn’t know what to steal. Once they’ve stolen it all, they market it as their own stuff. No regulation in our wild west internet world, you know. Don’t bring your kids up to be Indians or the modern settlers will shaft them, lie to them and sign ‘treaties’ they have no intention of upholding.

    There’s no societal support to steal something valuable to the thickos, like their kids, their genitals, their husband/wife/mistress/piece of rough, is there??

    Why not??

    I don’t regard it as an honour to have some of the richest people on the planet bugging what I do. I regard it as an outrage. I would, however, regard it as an honour if they paid me £1m a year for them to do that. That would be a quid pro quo, after all.

    No doubt our ‘luminaries’, our ‘business leaders’ would never be seen dead doing something honourable like that, though, would they??

    They’d lose face in their billionaire’s masonic congresses, wouldn’t they??

    And that would never do, would it????

    Tell your kids the truth and see if they want to submit to that. Anyone with independence, true emotional freedom wants nothing to do with it.

    Is joining a mafia the height of your ambition for them??

    I hope not.

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