Let’s hear it for Latvia

As if the visit of the Li family Daoist band to Paris wasn’t enough, now we can cheer 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko’s fearless hard-hitting victory in the French Open tennis final. Another victory for hope against fear, perhaps—and the power of the young.

She hits her forehands harder than Andy Murray—OK, the balls are lighter (watch this space), but at least they’re not pink and frilly, FFS.

Again, we need to note the power of sport as ritual.

Of course nationalism* is suspect (as in Macron’s fine rebuke “Let’s make the Planet great again”), UKIP St George flags and all that. When Andy won Wimbledon, “ending a 77-year wait” (“blimey, he’s getting on a bit”), sure it was wonderful, but I couldn’t help feeling, “So that’s what’s been missing from British history, eh—never mind defeating Nazism and setting up the NHS, apparently our constant sense of ennui has resided solely in our failure in a tennis tournament…”

So the thrill of Ostapenko’s win is mainly about her, but in this case it’s cool to get a vicarious pride for Latvia too. So let’s all go and educate ourselves about its modern history!

 

* With all due respect to Dr Johnson, “nationalism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” would have been better—patriotism is generally defined as more benign, though indeed we do need to keep a careful eye on that too.

Real and Zidane

After my words of praise for Arsenal and Wenger, the victory of Real Madrid and the gorgeous Zidane in the Champion’s League was even more inspiring.

Sure, we should always remember the artistry of Barcelona and Messi (the latter all the more since he “looks like he works part-time on Saturdays in a video rental shop”).

And Zidane’s headbutt in the final of the 2006 World Cup remains iconic. After all, players like him must be so used to being wound up on the pitch, yet not rising to the bait. With just minutes to go before he could be fêted, canonized, his rash act seems like an even higher form of art, a worthy sacrifice—never mind mundane celebrity, he just had to do it, like in a bullfight.

Ritual: the FA Cup, and a Sage

Following a heady week with the Li family band, Mahler 9, and Turangalîla, the FA Cup final is another Grand Ritual, which even I hesitate to compare with the Daoist jiao Offering.

After such a difficult season for Arsenal, I’m so happy for Arsène Wenger that they won. For me, in an age when Premier League managers last about as long as Italian prime ministers, Wenger—the archetypal wise father-figure—exemplifies the continuity and values of tradition, and our culture stands or falls with him. His victory also confirms my renewed infatuation with French culture.

While Sanchez is driven and divine, Theo Walcott comes and goes, and Mehmut Özil, “floating, vulnerable muse”, is sometimes rather too languid, his inspiration elusive and intermittent. If someone doesn’t translate his autobiography Die Magie des Spiels soon, then I’m seriously going to have to learn German—as if Nina Hagen and the Matthew Passion weren’t enough of a stimulus.

Ronnie can lose games too—but it’s the principle (Oops, I nearly came out with “It’s not whether you win or lose, but….”). Like Daoists, he and Wenger negotiate expediencies and maintain a core of inspiration in a mundane cutthroat society. Like Li Manshan, Wenger adroitly juggles a pool of performers—OK, this was expediency, but however did he come up with Mertesacker on the bo cymbals (Shurely shome mishtake?—Ed.] after all this time?! Génial!

While I’m about it, amidst a plethora of mercenary fuckwits posturing on the media stage, the Premier League has seen a sudden and unlikely flowering of civilized generous continental managers, pleasantly marginalizing the former Chelsea incumbent—sulky, pouting, self-obsessed, throwing his toys out of the pram. “Remind you of anybody?

My secondary education was inspirational, with several brilliant eccentric teachers in Classics, Music, and English. However, having excelled at football at primary level, at my secondary school we played rugby rather than football. Otherwise I would now (Now??? Come off it—Ed.) be joining Sanchez, Özil, and Walcott in the Arsenal forward line-up, and you would all be spared my crazed ramblings on Daoist ritual and WAM… The rest wouldn’t be history. And isn’t really anyway.

Hope for our future

Amidst all the recent plague of misogynistic claptrap—exemplified by the Neanderthal spewings from Tweety McTangerine—all is not lost.

One of the very most inspiring stories of recent months concerned the brilliant ripostes by indignant young female football players at a County Durham primary school to the Football Association’s advice (“naïve rather than sexist”???) on ways of recruiting more girls to the sport. Call me a Guardian reader if you will, but FFS, even The Sun expressed wholehearted admiration for the girls’ protests!

Their letters are just brilliant.

We aren’t brainless Barbie dolls.

Whether or not they’ve read the feminist classics yet (in pretty pink covers, perhaps, FA?), or even listened to Bridget Christie, they’re on the case, making mature cogent arguments way beyond the infantile rants of the leader of the Free World. There’s hope yet.

A master craftsman

Talking of calendrical rituals, the World Snooker championship rarely overlaps with Easter, but Ronnie was on divine form again on Easter Day. Sure, he can lose matches, but when he’s at the table we’re in the presence of a genius. The World event is most satisfying in its two-week span and the length of the individual, um, ritual segments, like a grand jiao Offering…

However troubled Ronnie’s personal history, the fluency of his technique and the sheer ease of his style recall those of a master musician.

I will be glued to his next match, beginning on Thursday evening. And the snooker also happily coincides with the British Forum for Ethnomusicology conference!

Learning

Sometimes on early morning swims I have the pool to myself for a while. This is as good as it gets.

As I swim, I think of Bach, and Daoist ritual [unbeatable Pseuds’ Corner entry—Ed.] Some aspects of swimming may intermittently involve the brain—like in crawl, concentrating on getting the hand shape right as it enters the water, pushes forwards, and starts to pull back; aligning the pull-back of the arm with the body, and so on.

In Daoist ritual, far from the cerebral, conceptual, philosophical, or spiritual learning of texts, physical memory plays a major role—motor movement, muscle- and (for sheng, guanzi, cymbals) finger-memory, the body; internalizing through ritual practice, experience, starting from young, like boys in any hereditary folk tradition such as the Li family Daoists.

Learning violin pieces is more of a private affair. Apart from physical practice, I’ve always internalized them silently too—while walking, dozing, swimming, and so on. Even away from the instrument, it’s a physical exercise: my fingers are always moving—like those of guanzi oboe players in north China. This has always accounted for quite a lot of “practice”—for me, anyway. I didn’t get where I am today.

But so much learning consists of simple repetition. I note that in French and Italian the word for rehearsal is répétition/repetizione. Conversely, might we interpret our “rehearsal” as putting into yet another conveyance for a coffin?!

So while swimming I engage the mind for a while and then empty it to let my body take over.