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10 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:29pm

Mike Brearley’s Diary: Gandhi posters, table tennis – and the link between your backhand and your shrink

How amazing it was that 40 years after the death of this man, people were using him for advertisements.

By Mike Brearley

I went to the LSE to hear Ramachandra Guha speak about the second volume of his biography of Gandhi. In spite of a sore throat, he was funny, engaging and enthusiastic, with clusters of words and sentences spoken at great speed. (I did miss quite a few of each.) He said that in India, when invited to give lectures in a university, you were encouraged to talk on a particular topic, while in the US you could talk about whatever you wanted to. (England was somewhere in between.) When, on the back of his reputation as a historian or sociologist, he was asked to speak at Berkeley in California, he discovered raised eyebrows about his proposal to lecture on Gandhi. He was nervous; would there be only five takers in a large lecture room?

However, going out for a walk in an unpretentious part of town near his hotel, he saw an advertisement that played on the pun between fast (as in cars) and fast (as in Gandhi), and he thought: how amazing it was that 40 years after the death of this man who never even visited the US, people were using him for advertisements. The lectures would be OK. And they were.

Ram didn’t allow himself to be diverted into commenting on wider topics. I get fed up when so many questions in interviews about my (less weighty in all senses) book On Cricket are about Joe Root or Virat Kohli, but I’m not so good at bringing the book back into the conversation. Ram was blunt with people: “Factually incorrect,” he said, authoritatively, to one audience member, and then again to the poor man’s second bite of the cherry. There are those, including some psychoanalysts, who are able to say tough things without taking the moral high ground. They simply take the moral ground, and that is more bearable for the recipient. Good advice for me.

Remember Venezuela

The Labour party conference took place in Liverpool, quite appropriate as the home of Momentum. My uncertainty, akin to that of others: it’s hard to argue with the basic claims of the inner group around Jeremy Corbyn, especially John McDonnell, that we live in an unfair society; that we need to do away with zero-hours working; create a unifying principle for the rail system; and that workers will be more happy if they feel they have a stake in their company. And yet – and yet – will the figures work out? Will the left decline into a dictatorship, brooking no variability? As with Cato’s “Remember Carthage”, should we hang on to the mantra: “Remember Venezuela”? Should we pull back from moves towards a more just society because we are apprehensive about the market’s response to such policies?

Why socks don’t make a man

I’m giving a public lecture on 8 October, on “Freeing up thought in sport, psychoanalysis and everyday life” (which covers just about everything). And I’ve taken up table tennis. I discover there are links between the two. I go once a week to a club in Hampstead Garden Suburb, where there are two wonderful teachers (Nico from Albania and Elinor from Moldova), and a mainly male group, many of us of a certain age. I never learned table tennis, and only played in those rare cricket clubs where there would be table tennis tables available for after the game ended. I would play with my father, who would let me get to 20-16 and then polish me off at 22-20. He was a Yorkshireman. As one spectator at Headingley shouted, “Don’t think yourself so clever, Brearley, just because you wear socks.”

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The learning process is interesting, even at my age. Partly it’s a matter of grooving. Play four back hands followed by one forehand. Use your forearm, not your whole arm, for back hands. Don’t move so far with your whole body for a forehand. You have to think, but also let things happen. And you often play better not when you learn a particular bit of technique, but when you “become” the teacher, embodying Nico or Elinor in your strokes. Finally, in table tennis as with other difficult activities, things start to fall apart so easily, whether because your opponent is a bit sharper, or because you become complacent or over-anxious.

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I came to it after watching a TV programme in which a group of old people were divided into three: one section carried on without any extra activities, the second played table tennis three times a week and the third went for a 60-minute walk several times a week. At the end of the experiment, cognitive and other abilities were measured and compared with how they were at the start. Both table tennis and walking improved people’s reactions, cognition, memory and alertness in slightly different ways.

Farewell to old habits of mind

Learning table tennis is not unlike learning how to be more human through psychoanalysis. Patients are asked to free associate, to say what comes into our minds; the analyst notices moments of hesitation or obstruction to the free flow of thoughts, and invites the patient to notice them, too. This sometimes leads to the interfering thought or feeling that blocked the flow, which patients come to recognise in the moment of its emerging. Thus, we can come to feel, as they arise, thoughts that would otherwise never emerge, or never be taken seriously, but which are parts of the underlying assumptions that drive us and often restrict us. This is potentially freeing, and, as with small children moving from babbling into language, opens up new forms of possible life. Old automatic habits, compulsions and addictions may become replaced by newer, more inclusive capacities of awareness and firmer, stronger habits of mind.

As in table tennis, these forms become ingrained in positive ways, but always with a degree of precariousness. In sport as in everyday life, we are prone to fall back into old habits of mind and body, when tested too hard, or tired or pressured, or tempted once again by delusory seductions.

Mike Brearley is a psychoanalyst and former captain of the England cricket team. His new book, “On Cricket”, is published by Constable

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This article appears in the 10 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain