- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

Embarrassing, I know, but I have been at a loose end since the end of the World Cup. The sense of loss is hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t care for our version of football. But it’s there, all the same.

One minute we were enjoying three live games a day, then the numbers slowly dwindled to one every few days until, after the final, we had nothing to do but stare at a blank screens and shake our heads over the latest ill-informed pieces by American conservatives explaining why soccer is the preserve of what tavern keeper Moe in “The Simpsons” would call “loser countries.”

There were honorable exceptions to the axis of ignorance. For instance, America’s unofficial ambassador to Germany, Aspen Institute director Jeff Gedmin, wrote a terrific column explaining how he’d been gripped by soccer fever. Otherwise an awful lot of blundering pundits seemed intent on alienating even more of America’s friends abroad.

The new season doesn’t begin for all of three weeks, which is why I found myself killing time by reading an extract from “The Italian Job,” by Gianluca Vialli, a figure who has enjoyed success as a player and manager in both England and his native land. What caught my eye was his explanation of why the game is so different in the two countries. Ever the perfectionist, Mr. Vialli commissioned a study of climactic conditions. When the results came in, they contained a surprise:

“The research showed clearly that there was no substantial difference in temperature and that it rained more in Turin than in London. So why did it feel colder in London? The answer came when I looked at wind speeds. The average monthly wind speed in the three English cities was 15.3 kilometres per hour, compared with 10.3km per hour in the Italian cities. That meant that in England the wind blew some 50 per cent harder than it did in Italy.”

And what effect does that have on players? Well, in training there’s an extra incentive for players who feel cold to move around for activity’s sake, just to keep muscles supple. Whereas in Italy, players spend much more time analyzing moves and pondering tactics. Far-fetched? Well, given that Italy have just walked away with yet another championship, I’m willing to believe anything.

Although I have to admit that talk of wind speeds seems more than academic at the moment, as Britain potters through yet another heat wave. The South-East has been suffering water shortages for months. In my area, we are not allowed to water our lawns, which means that, if you listen hard enough at the dead of night, you hear distraught gardeners creeping around their gardens, attempting to salvage plants with thimblefuls of precious H20.

As the temperature rises and the holiday season beckons, a mood of Mediterranean resignation spreads across the land. Westminster began its 76-day summer recess on Tuesday; it will be October before MPs return. Tony Blair heads for a Barbados villa next month, and there is no mistaking the sense that we are entering a period of limbo.

Everyone in the political game is convinced that the prime minister will be resigning at some point in the next year. But nobody, except Mr. Blair himself, knows when exactly that will be.

In the meantime, the new Tory leader, David Cameron will be relaxing on Jura (the Scottish island where George Orwell wrote much of “1984”) secure in the knowledge that his flurry of PR initiatives has helped the Conservatives appear like human beings again.

The next challenge is to concentrate on putting together plausible policies. So far Mr. Cameron has benefited from the simple fact that Mr. Blair is roundly disliked by most of the country. Most Americans probably have no idea of how low the prime minister’s stock has fallen in the last couple of years. Posterity, I suspect, will be a lot kinder to him.

In the meantime he has to somehow find a way of shaking off the legacy of Iraq, which is why that “Yo, Blair” exchange at the G8 summit came at such an unfortunate time.

It’s not, all in all, an auspicious time to be pro-American here. Even among senior conservatives there is unease at how much goodwill has been squandered by Washington in the last five years or so. When a Tory journalist as experienced as the Telegraph’s Simon Heffer writes that “We are being tarred with the brush of America’s incompetence, and being devalued internationally as a result of it,” you know how serious the issue has become.

There are still pockets of pro-U.S. resistance. The MP Times columnist Michael Gove has just published a well-reviewed book, “Celsius 7/7,” which makes a passionate case for confronting Islamist fanaticism.

Another journalist, Melanie Phillips — profiled in this column some years ago — has won praise for a similar polemic, “Londonistan” (although it’s a sign of the times that she had to go to America to find a publisher). Michael Gove is also a leading light of the British chapter of the staunchly Atlanticist Henry Jackson Society, which has just issued a pro-liberal interventionist manifesto called “The British Moment.”

But these are voices at the margins. To get a taste of conventional wisdom here, all you need to do is sample some of the relentlessly critical media coverage of the Israeli offensive in Lebanon. Moral equivalence is the order of the day for many — though thankfully not all — journalists covering the conflict.

One advantage of the exodus from London is that American visitors should have slightly less trouble finding tickets for West End shows. Given the feeble air-conditioning in some of the older venues, theater-going can be a hazardous business at this time of year.

Another menace comes in the form of misleading press quotations. I’m the victim of one particularly egregious production, the crude and schmaltzy Sinatra tribute show currently playing at the Palladium. Despite my love of Ol’ Blue Eyes, I thought the musical deserved a panning, and duly obliged. Undeterred, the publicists managed to unearth one sentence which seemed to imply I had ascended to a state of heavenly bliss.

When the Times ran a survey this week, it found that more than a third of theaters use “highly selective” quotes. I was only surprised the figure wasn’t even higher. There is, I admit, perverse fun to be had with comparing the original comments with the ones that appear in lights.

My favorite of the crop exposed in the newspaper was from the blurb for the play, “On the Third Day”: “Kate Betts … has a vivid sense of the possibilities of theatre,” it declared, deftly omitting the next sentence: “But, as yet, On the Third Day is all over the place …”

Who said the arts suffered from a lack of imagination?

Clive Davis writes for the London Times, and keeps a weblog at www.clivedavis-online.com.


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