How to have a fight about sport
Here's the shock. In "Arguably", the latest - and probably last - book, out next month, from the man frequently called Britain's greatest essayist, Christopher Hitchens, there are warm words for sport. Cricket, to be precise. Or preciser: cricket, in the West Indies, in the mid-20th century.
The shock comes if - like me - you'd only previously read Hitch's casually magisterial denunciation of organised sport, in Newsweek last year: "Fool's Gold: How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature."
Hitchens spins the globe, pointing his pen at El Salvador and Honduras, Egypt and Algeria, Canada's recent Olympic attempt to "Own The Podium", et al. "Whether it's the exacerbation of national rivalries that you want... or the exhibition of the most depressing traits of human personality... you need only look to the wide world of sports for the most rank and vivid examples."
This argument, as Hitchens himself points out, isn't new. In 1945, a few months after the end of the war, George Orwell published "The Sporting Spirit".
Yes, Orwell wrote, it is possible to play "simply for fun and exercise" on, for example, the village green. But as it grows, sport can't escape the black gravity of nationalism - "that is, the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige."
Orwell then produces six of the most famous words about sport, at the end of this savage paragraph: "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting."
The point about a good essay is not - necessarily - that you stroke your chin and say: yes, exactly, just what I've been saying all along, glad someone agrees. Some (most?) essays should prick and provoke. They should give the comfortable backside of conventional wisdom a good shoeing.
On the surface, Hitchens' sport-related essay in "Arguably" is altogether gentler. It's an appreciation of C.L.R.James - the West Indian activist, writer, historian and cricket-lover. (Of James's "Beyond A Boundary" (pub.1963), the Guardian's veteran book-reviewer Nicholas Lezard wrote: "To say 'the best cricket book ever written' is pifflingly inadequate praise.")
And so, through James, Hitchens describes cricket, as "inherently democratic... it teaches the values of equality and fairness. 'Beyond A Boundary'... is a lyrical account of both the aesthetics of batsmanship and the bonding and exemplary role played by cricket in the development of the West Indies."
The piece on James is not the most pungent, among this often wonderful exhibition of intellectual paint-stripping. I would like to have seen space, amid the eight hundred pages, for "Fool's Gold".
Because, as London 2012, Euro 2012, and all the other multinational entertainments draw close, what of our response now? "I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations... International sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred." Hitchens and Orwell: brilliant writers, powerful polemicists. Who's to say they're wrong?