Don’t mention the war

WE have just returned from a few days with my son and his family in Berlin and as usual we walked and talked ourselves almost to a standstill. It is a great city for walking (and cycling) because it is pretty flat (“built on a marsh,” says my son) and it has a fantastic public transport system which ought to be the envy of the world, and certainly of those of us who live in rural areas, frustrated and ripped off by the underfunded and generally chaotic mash-up here.

Walking around their part of the city is always a pleasure – it’s an area full of small independent shops, fun and affordable eateries, street markets, young people (it is said to have the highest birth rate in the whole of Germany), galleries, studios, arts venues in old industrial buildings and vestiges of ancient graffiti of a peculiarly Berlin variety, huge., spray-painted, sometimes political, sometimes angry, sometimes incomprehensible, but all full of energy. I’m sure the smart people who run the city these days would love to clear them all away, but they are still there, along the old sidings and factories backing on to the railway lines, on buildings that have happily not yet all been gentrified, up stray alleys and in the passageways down to the underground stations.

Yet it is also a clean and tidy city.– the parks are not smothered in fast food wrappers and coffee or cola cups, the underpasses aren’t knee-deep in detritus and the bus shelters have benches that aren’t broken.

Like all big cities there are posters everywhere, hoardings advertising everything from IT to underwear, bland political posters for the European elections, and bills for the latest block-buster or Bollywood movie, for rock concerts, avant-garde or mainstream theatre, circuses, comedy clubs, strip clubs, sports and countless other events.

At the moment the big thing is the World Cup. That’s a big yawn for me, but I realise it is a matter of vast importance, national pride and probably huge financial interest to countless millions.

My son, who is too short-sighted to play most ball-games, and who grew up in a household where tennis and equestrian were the only sports that got us excited, made an effort for a while to get interested in football when he first lived in Berlin. The Germans are as passionate about football as the English, the Scots, the Italians, the Brazilians, the Argentinians or indeed most of the world.

Every time there is an international football tournament – European or world – the German papers contemplate grimly or ruefully the jingoistic nature of English football journalism. Why, they ask, do the English treat a football match in which the English team might meet the German team as a re-run of the war?

It’s a good question. I don’t know the answer because I don’t care about football. I take a mild interest in a friend’s favourite teams so that I can commiserate or congratulate as required. But that’s it. Unlike some women in the media, I don’t feel a need to be “one of the boys” and have “my team” to get excited about.

I became a journalist at a time when there were still relatively few women on local papers (other than secretaries or copy-takers). We had to do whatever the men did – since we thought we were as good as they were. That meant covering football matches, whatever the weather, and irrespective of our lack of interest or knowledge of the game. (Oddly, yet predictably, the situation was not reversed when it came to covering fashion shows in the town’s big stores – apparently you couldn’t ask a man to write about clothes!)

When a big English football club sacks or changes its manager it is headline news around the world. If we are foolish enough to ask why, we are told that everyone wants to know all about it, that these “clubs” are important businesses, and that their management and personnel are matters of enormous international interest. Three days as the main story on every front page and every news broadcast? Spare me!

I noticed that the critic Mark Lawson, in an enthusiastic review of the West End transfer of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s brilliant productions of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, still had to parade his football credentials. Reviewing the double bill was, he said, the first time he had ever missed an FA Cup Final. Why? Does it make his review more interesting? No. Does it make us respect his critical abilities any more? No. Does it show he’s one of the lads, not some arty-farty journo? You bet. How sad is that!

My son pointed out the World Cup posters, with bellicose English slogans, around their area – “This time, it’s war” … “Let battle commence” … depicting hulking supermen in body armour, looking more like something from Godzilla than sportsmen.

The beautiful game? I don’t think so.

Fanny Charles