I’m constantly encouraged to celebrate observing drunk people behaving boringly

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

New Statesman
The celebration of drunkenness fills the whole day, so that no second is safe from invasion. Photograph: Getty Images

We have to like public drunkenness. It is a moral imperative. Commentating on the Ashes over the next seven weeks, I will be encouraged to celebrate every intoxicated buffoon, probably dressed as a giant panda, who falls over in the stands, spilling his pint of lager over half a row of genuine fans who’ve paid £100 for the right to watch a cricket match and have ended up with an obscured view of the sport, replaced instead by the full panda experience. What japes, what larks, what good times had by all, so much to celebrate! This is the media’s default position: the more empty bottles on the terraces, the greater the occasion. “They’re having a great day out, eh?”

I am baffled by several elements of this narrative, which will be repeated throughout the Ashes. First, that pouring alcohol down your throat, scarcely a challenging athletic feat, is considered an achievement. Second, that it contributes majestically to the sense of sporting occasion and the gaiety of nations. Third, that the long-suffering, quiet majority don’t summon the courage to object – perhaps they are wary of being told to lighten up and have some fun. Finally, is anyone enjoying themselves anyway, including – indeed especially – the panda?

Attending a major sporting event is like boarding a plane. The same question looms, laden with frightening potential: who am I sitting next to? You anxiously scan both sides, assessing where problems might arise. Will the bottom belonging to the oversized American break the seat? Is the flip-flop wearing fake hippie en route to Goa going to rest his foot on your travel blanket indefinitely?

The difference is that taking a flight is a means to an end. The pleasure, in principle, will follow soon afterwards. A sports match, in contrast, is the final destination, the fun itself. So it is no small issue if the fans in front of you spend half the match standing up and shuffling along to buy and consume beer, and the other half standing up and shuffling along to release from their bodies the beer they have just consumed. The celebration of drunkenness fills the whole day, before and after play, so that no second is safe from invasion. Earlier this season, after a one-day international in Nottingham, I took the late train back to London. A group of spectators, well-dressed and articulate, clearly wealthy professional types, arranged themselves nearby in the same carriage. They swayed and swore, shouting as though silence might kill them, manfully keeping up the pretence that this was wonderfully enjoyable for them and for everyone else. The traveller in me began to shuffle away. The writer craned forward.

Their conversation, such as it was, began at a low level, from which point it lurched downwards. Cheerful descriptions of their own bodily functions gave way to self-congratulatory estimates of how much they’d drunk so far, then calculations of how much more they were about to drink, how much the whole thing had cost them, before settling finally and unconvincingly on mutual reinforcement about how “great it is to be completely free and away from the missus”. But the unsettling question hung over them: total freedom and this is the best we can manage?

Their grimly determined drinking was accompanied by even more effortful laughter, as though a joke had to come round the corner eventually. They half-heartedly proposed stag jaunts to exotic locations. But enthusiasm for another bout of drinking and canned laughter waned as soon as actual dates were suggested.

For everyone else in the carriage, the journey was excruciating. The more curious aspect was that the protagonists also seemed uncertain they were enjoying themselves. None of us can be sure where another finds pleasure. But there was the sense of dutifully acting out a part, falling into a script that had been written for them. And as they lost confidence, the whole performance became more of a struggle.

They ran out of spectators, too, and selfconscious “indulgence”, expensive and cheap at the same time, is partly fuelled by a sense of display. As everyone else nodded off, the energy drained from the act. By the time we reached London, hints of looming shame mingled with the prospect of relief – the act could soon be dropped and the “fun” replaced by just living.

No day has ever been damaged by the spectacle of genuine joyousness. It’s the fraudulent stuff that leaves a bad taste. Authentic fun is infectious, inauthentic fun the opposite. I am no puritan. I pursue pleasure wherever I can. I enjoy drinking alcohol almost every day. My objection is that these people are amateurs. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s hard to know which is worse: that they’re damaging everyone else’s day, or that they’re failing even to enhance their own. Observing people drinking ineptly has the same desperate quality as overhearing ham-fisted attempts at seduction.

What does a pleasurable day at the cricket really look like? Breakfast (with serious coffee) near the ground, taking in the nervous excitement on the faces of both sets of fans; arrive before play, to hear the hum of the crowd slowly find its full voice; a glass of wine at lunch; the interweaving of cricket and conversation, one taking up the slack when the other wanes, with no pressure on either to fill all the space; a cold pale ale, the bottle frosted with condensation, in warm sunshine at 6pm; finally, over dinner, shared reflections on the match, memories deepening with friendship.

No one will single you out for eye-catching displays of “fun”. Your memories will be unique, but your contribution was anonymous. That is not to say you didn’t do anything special. You were part of a crowd and you played your part fully. The game and the day were better for you being there. Let’s celebrate that.

Tags:Cricket