The art of losing, Liz Bishop once wrote, isn't hard to master. She could have written "arts". There are many different ways to lose, but I don't think any of them is easy.
I used to play soccer with my kid sisters. They were game, but frustratable; they didn't like always losing, but they liked even less being condescended to. Michael Caine once explained the trick of acting drunk. The lesson sounded familiar. You don't act drunk, he said, by trying to walk crooked; you act drunk by trying to walk straight. Losing right (as every parent should know) requires at least the intention of winning.
Then there's the problem of the after-loss. Arsenal, reduced to ten men, put up a good fight against Barcelona in last month's Champions League final.
They took the lead, on a questionable decision, and gave it away after another one. Later, Coach Wenger couldn't resist a dig at the officiating. Understandably: the feeling that "there but for the grace of God go I" rises in our hearts equally at the sight of fortune and misfortune. A little will is needed, after the match is over, to keep a straight face of defeat.
Form is temporary; class is permanent. Two weeks ago, Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs fell in the second round
of the NBA play-offs
to Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks. Duncan, who had led the Spurs to three championships, played superbly, brought the team back from a three-one series deficit and then from 20 points down in the final and deciding game. They lost in overtime. Afterwards, Duncan remarked that it was the best series he had ever played in; he was simply glad to have been a part of it.
I've lost to Nowitzki myself. When Dirk was 17, he played in a league in Bavaria for a team that was the arch-rival of my own. He had already a look and touch of gold. Seven feet tall, light on his feet, casually, technically perfect, he could more or less do what he liked with us. Only our captain, Jon Roberson, an old minor leaguer from San Antonio, had enough tricks in his bag to outduel the boy wonder, and was named tournament MVP (most valuable player).
Everybody could see that Nowitzki would be a star - everybody except for Roberson. In the changing room afterwards, cradling his MVP trophy, he thanked us for the part we'd played in his award. Most of us were in the showers. We knew what he didn't want to face: that this wasn't the game that counted, that Nowitzki had those still to come.
You show me a good loser, a friend of mine liked to say, and I'll show you a loser. After grad school, he went to work for Bush, though at least he's had the sense (the sense of the loser) to get out when the going is bad. Grad school reminds me of one of the best losers I ever played ball with. Cory Booker starred at football for Stanford; but his basketball skills were muscular rather than fine, and basketball rewards fineness. Booker played as hard as he could and lost with a large, affable indifference: the first two qualities characterised his considerable social charm. Maybe the third did, too. I remember thinking at the time: there goes the first black president of the United States. At his second attempt, he's just been elected mayor of Newark.
Not that I don't admire sore losing. Some of our best losers are sore. Mike Tyson, outmuscled by Evander Holyfield, fought back biting. Rage, rage is Dylan Thomas's advice - though the one person he could never give it to, he admitted, was the man who inspired it: his dying father. Well, Tyson raged. Howl, how Lear cries out at losing his daughter. Wenger would sympathise; but the best Shakespearean line for losing with, whether you roar it like Laurence Olivier did exiting the stage, or simper it with meek inscrutability, may belong to Shylock: "I am content."
It's the losers, after all, and not the devils, who have all the good songs.
Hunter Davies is back next week, reporting on the World Cup