Confessions of summers from a misspent youth

Confessions of summers from a misspent youth

Summertime and the living is easy. Chance would be a fine thing. Traffic is clogged up like a lorry driver’s artery and people are still hunched over spreadsheets and snarling at each other in emails. The wheels must be kept turning; the world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.

It used to be so different. Long, lazy childhood summers stretched out forever. Exciting adventures, like the time I and four friends, one of whom was a very clever dog, foiled these smugglers who’d kidnapped my Uncle Quentin. Not sure about all the details of that one; pretty sure it happened, though.

Or college holidays, when we went backpacking in the Hindu Kush, smoked opium, and learned to play the sitar. Again, it’s all a bit hazy; that might actually have been a mobile phone ad. What I really remember, from the days when summers were slower and time was your own, is watching sport during the day.

The great summer events, to be truly savoured, demand the investment of countless idle hours: Wimbledon, cricket test matches, Tour de France, the Open. Depending on the year and time zone, Olympics and World Cups, too.

These events cannot be properly consumed as morsels of snackable content, as the digital ninjas say. Nor are they necessarily primetime products. They unfold on sultry weekday afternoons, across hours that are supposed to be spent on productive tasks.

They require full immersion, the curtains to be drawn, the world blocked out. In the immortal words of Des Lynam: shouldn’t you be at work? I remain convinced that there can be no better use of a summer afternoon than to slide full body into the quicksand of a big sports event.

I reject the capitalist orthodoxy that says a Tuesday morning in July is better spent acquiring a growth mindset or acting as a change-leader in your organisation. Not when Victoria Azarenka and Kirsten Flipkens are battling it out on court 18. Quite please: play.

I know this to be true. In my teenage years, summer jobs were in short supply in rural Donegal. But there was work to be had for young lads who had the right attitude, a bit of get-up-and-go, the desire to knock on doors and put in the hard graft.

Alas, I had none of these things. Instead, I spent school holidays watching the action from SW19 and Lords. I was with the peloton as they suffered up the Tourmalet, or Peter Alliss as he mused about the inner life of a Turnberry seabird. Occasionally, I pulled the lawnmower out of the shed to quell parental wrath.

This might seem like a heinous waste of a young life; precious hours squandered watching other people play sport, when the opportunities of youth lay before me. It should haunt me as middle age approaches, time racing downhill like Miguel Indurain descending the Col du Galibier in 1992.

But then, I think of the Friday morning in June 1993, when a young Australian spinner called Shane Warne bowled his first ball in his debut Ashes Test. At the crease was the experienced English batsman Mike Gatting. I’ve checked the date, and it turns out I should have been studying for the Junior Cert. Just days from my first state exams and I’m dialled into the early exchanges of what I must have known would require a summer-long commitment to goofing off. This was dossing on an epic scale.

I didn’t know much about cricket then, and I still don’t, but I’m glad I wasn’t distracted by ox-bow lakes and quadratic equations that morning. Warne’s ball pitched somewhere to the far left of Gatting’s field of vision, then spun violently across his body, in defiance of the laws of physics, rattling the top of his stumps. Gatting looked at Warne in disbelief, the ashen-faced mark who’d just lost his life savings in a madcap confidence trick.

They called it the ‘ball of the century.’ Warne’s legend was made. Then England captain, Graham Gooch, said of the rotund Gatting:

If it had been a cheese roll, it would never have got past him.

The records show that I sat the Junior Cert, but I don’t remember anything about it. I remember that Ashes summer, though: David Boon, who drank 52 cans of beer on the flight from Sydney to Heathrow. Merv Hughes, Allan Border, the Waughs. Most of the Aussies seemed to have thickets of chest hair and moustaches on their moustaches.

The English wilted in the face of their pungent masculinity as the series went on. The next summer, I got a job in a fish-processing factory. I’m glad I saw the ‘ball of the century.’

I’m glad I followed every turn of the wheel on Tour de France mountain stages: the climbs up punishing Pyreneean hairpins, the perilous descents through picturesque Alpine villages; the courage of the lonely domestique out on his own, bidding for glory up in those forbidding peaks, the helicopter shot panning out to show the voracious peloton hunting him down. Can he make it? Keep going little man.

I’m glad I also followed the Wimbledon five-setters bashing away on the outside courts, gripping duels interlaced with ‘oohs’,’ aahs’ and the whisper of Dan Maskell. The ebb and flow of it. The human struggle. Rain! Quick, someone dig out Borg v McEnroe!

Is it something to do with stolen time? Or is it, like drinking in the afternoon, better because other people are working? Not sure, but I get to neither drink nor watch sport on summer weekdays so much anymore. I think of my friend Paul, who has always taken this stuff seriously.

He used to book two weeks of holidays to fully focus on World Cup group stages. Then, life got in the way, but I note that he recently took six weeks parental leave to coincide with the Cricket World Cup, Wimbledon, and the Open. Shrewd. Summer’s here. Pull those curtains; there’s an awful glare on that telly.

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