It’s downhill all the way at the moment

I can’t even get my poetry quotations right.

I am not over-fond of this time of year. Summer’s lease hath all too short a stay. Date, I mean. Why do I always get that wrong? Anyway, it’s now autumn. The windows that have been left open are now shut to stop the draughts, the summer plumage – linen, basically, and those cheapo desert boots you buy from shoe shops on the Uxbridge Road for £20 – is replaced by the winter version, and the Proms come to an end. This is particularly sad this year, as it is the first time since 1999 that Roger Wright, head of Radio 3 andthe Proms, hasn’t invited me along to his box to eat his smoked salmon sarnies and drink his wine.

Maybe he has wearied of me. I thought he used to be amused by my having to climb over him for a pee during the long, long wall of sound that is Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, or making feeble passes at Jenny Agutter, or gawping at Simon Heffer’s profile. How does anyone get jowls like that? He’s only three years older than I am. Heffer, not Wright. Wright is older than either of us but has the ageless good looks of a Donatello putto. I sat and waited for his call all summer long but it never came, and when I heard “Jerusalem” bouncing off the walls all the way from Hyde Park, I had a tear in my eye. So that’s it, then, I thought.

I know I’m not important any longer – I used to be radio critic for the Independent on Sunday until they decided I was surplus to requirements about six years ago – but what about auld lang syne? They sang that, too, as if to wash their mouths out after “Jerusalem” and “Rule, Britannia!”, and that nearly floored me. (Incidentally, I gather the Independent on Sunday has now decided that all its critics are surplus to requirements and has given the entire arts desk the heaveho. You will write and tell them they’re being silly arseholes, won’t you? They had some fine writers on those pages.) Oh well; nothing lasts for ever and at least this year we had a summer to speak of, unlike last year’s washout.

I used to like September, though. I was never particularly fond of school but at least you got to learn some stuff and there was always a good chance that I’d have some new masters who had yet to nurse any grudges against me. The start of the university year was even better: leaving the family home meant the thrilling prospect of going where there were locks on the lavatory doors.

But that was when life was still a process leading to sunny uplands. Each year was going to be better than the last one: you’d know a bit more, be earning a bit more and certainly be having more sex. After all, I would ask myself in my late teens, how could I be having any less? That’s not something I’m worried about now, thank goodness, but as for the rest . . . Well, anyone out there feeling happier, richer and more confident about the future than they were last year?

I thought that at the very least this government had reached the maximum point of stupidity and malice a supposedly enlightened western democracy was capable of, but now I read that the DWP is to start calling people in if it thinks they’re not earning enough money and will tell them to work more. Am I missing something or is this the most brutal move against the poor yet? Other solutions – say, raising the minimum wage – seem not to have occurred to them.

Not only is one’s own life going downhill at an increasingly uncomfortable rate but the whole country is, too. The nights draw in, the clouds roll over. It’s all very well battening down the hatches but what if one has no battens with which to batten them? The eldest child is going off to university and by the end of her course will almost certainly be in debt to the tune of £27,000, which worries me even more than the fact that at least one member of the philosophy faculty not only thinks Descartes was a medieval philosopher, but pronounces his name “day car” to boot. The last time I mentioned that, I got accused of the most outrageous snobbery; I’m bracing myself for that again.

But it turns out that I cannot even take solace from such fragments of learning as I retain. I take my melancholy and do what everyone does with it these days: air it on Facebook. “Summer’s lease hath all too short a stay,” I write laconically, hoping to impress everyone with the lightness of my learning, the deftness of my command of allusion to fit the mood of the time.

“Date,” everyone writes back. “It’s ‘date’, you idiot.”

Summer is almost over. Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org