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9 July 2015

Could this be 1934 all over again, a summer of British sporting triumph – and European tragedy?

The twisting of proud nations on skewers of debt and want, the rise of shrill nationalisms, the fear of foreigners – all these staples of modern life can’t be more than bland echoes of those dismal days, can they?

By Robert Winder

One of Wimbledon’s most familiar features is the trim statue of the great Fred Perry, who won three consecutive titles in the 1930s. It makes a convenient backdrop for photo opportunities and reminds all passing British players (even Andy Murray) that home victories are surpassingly rare. But not everything about Perry can be set in stone. He was without doubt a supreme champion, winning Wimbledon three times before turning professional and emigrating to the United States. He was not, however, the most accurate witness to his own achievements.

His autobiography tells a delightful story about how, after his heady first win in 1934 (there hadn’t been a home champion since 1909) he was snubbed by the tennis elite, who looked down their nose at a humble lad from Cheshire. Off he flew in an indignant sulk to Brighton, only to be reminded that he was needed back in SW19 for the mixed doubles. After a mad dash with a police escort, he shook hands with the king and queen before notching up a historic double with his partner Dorothy Round.

It’s a cracking tale. Sadly, it isn’t true. Glancing at the record books, one sees that Round won the mixed doubles not with Perry but with Ryuki Miki of Japan. In 1934, Perry did not even enter. It is a sign that when it comes to sporting glory even our fondest memories are not always reliable.

The tennis at Wimbledon looks rather different, I must say, when glimpsed through a forest of sunburned necks in a noisy Italian bar, where I watched the early matches. Even in the so-called heat wave it comes across as cool and decorous, much like the high-society scene at Ascot in My Fair Lady. The players seem courteous, the drinks enticing, the crowd mild, the grass soft. It is a resonant image – a cartoon, really – of Englishness, barely recognisable to anyone who actually lives here, yet dramatic and arresting seen from afar. No wonder pictures of that lovely Centre Court, with its gracious shadows, are splashed across so many European newspapers as part of a luxury Swiss watch promotion.

And once again there are wild dreams of an amazing triple for Britain. How about it: Murray at Wimbledon, Rory McIlroy at St Andrews and England at Lord’s in the Ashes? Any takers? It’s a nice thought. But nothing along these lines has been seen since 1934, when Perry’s first Wimbledon was, in the space of a few weeks, accompanied by Henry Cotton’s first Open and a freakish England victory at St John’s Wood. This last owed everything to Yorkshire’s Hedley Verity, who took 15 wickets in the match (including Bradman’s, twice) – 14 of them in a single, hectic day. Even diehard fans often forget that this was the only time England beat Australia at Lord’s in the entire 20th century, so only an extreme optimist would bet on it recurring.

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It would be interesting, of course, if Moeen Ali were to play the Hedley Verity role and skittle Australia twice in a day. Instead of three jolly good fellows from England’s northern shires, read a Northern Irishman, a Scot and a Birmingham Muslim of Pakistani extraction . . . Britishness really is an ever-changing thing.

Italy, however, has other preoccupations just now. Each day brings new boatloads of Africans across the Mediterranean and these are the pictures that dominate the media space. It is a useful reminder that Britain, despite the bleating about migration that disfigures our politics, is only lightly brushed by it. The UK received 37,000 refugees last year – too many, we are told. But Germany took 173,000, and Turkey 1.9 million in the same period. This year Italy and Greece have taken 60,000 each and there is no sign of an end to it. It only adds to the nightmare that is currently stalking Greece and Italy, two of Europe’s most troubled states.

No time for an all-encompassing solution here, I fear (there may be no such thing). But one idea occurs. If we all tossed a euro into the southern Europe bailout pot every time we used a Greek or Roman concept – democracy, credit, politics, ethics, capital, austerity, referendum and so on – then perhaps the problem could be eased. Forget about the Elgin Marbles: this would be a more lucrative and just way to acknowledge our historic debt to these great civilisations, without which Europe would not even exist.

At first sight there are few connections between the Mediterranean migrant crisis and the Ashes Test of 1934, but here is a faint one. Most of the African travellers (more than 100,000 so far) have disembarked in Catania, in southern Sicily. And this, as chance would have it, is the faraway spot where the Leeds-born Hedley Verity, hero of that famous old match, was killed. He was urging his company (a Yorkshire regiment) across a field at night, as part of the seaborne invasion of Italy in 1943, when he was hit in the chest by German gunfire. The marksman might not have known he had one of the all-time spin-bowling greats in his sights. Verity died soon afterwards.

Thus does history shimmer in the present day. When Verity walked out at Lord’s in 1934, Europe was hurtling towards disaster: Hitler and Mussolini were shaking hands in Venice; Germany was rearming; Stalin was crushing Ukraine. So perhaps we should enjoy this summer’s sporting spectacles with a pinch of something less than sweet. It is hard to believe that anything along those lines could recur. The twisting of proud nations on skewers of debt and want, the rise of shrill nationalisms and religious enmity, the fear of foreigners – all these staples of modern life can’t be more than bland echoes of those dismal days, can they?

Ed Smith is away

Robert Winder’s latest book, “Half-Time: the Glorious Summer of 1934”, is published this month by Bloomsbury