Ping pong’s coming home

THIS is all Ian Hislop’s fault, you know. It doesn’t seem like five minutes since Boris Johnson was stumbling his way through Have I Got News For You? Now, all of a sudden, he appears to have become the face of the 2012 Olympics.

There was Boris, at the Olympic handover ceremony in London today, making a speech that was remarkable for its utter weirdness; a speech which left London 2012 organising committee chairman Seb Coe laughing with a mixture of surprise, bemusement and perhaps mild embarrassment.

For instance, after congratulating Team GB on their best medal haul since 1908, when they were known simply as Great Britain, Boris came up with this gem:

“I’ve every confidence that when people come to London in 2012, they will find a city that is very different from 1908.”

Well yes, let’s hope so, otherwise King Edward VII is going to have to make a hell of a comeback.

Even stranger was Boris’ frankly bonkers riff on table tennis, which I reproduce in full below, complete with all its random tangents:

“There’s one thing that visitors to our Olympics will find is completely unchanged. And that is that every one of the games will have been… well I mourn the passing of some of these games.

“For instance, the pankration, whose chief exponent was Milo of Croton, whose signature performance involved carrying an ox the length of the stadium, killing it with his bare hands and then eating it all on the same day. I’m trying to persuade Seb and the Prime Minister and Tessa [Jowell] to bring that one back.

“Er, but they will find this unchanged. Virtually every single one of our international sports were either invented or codified by the British. They were. And I say this respectfully to our Chinese hosts, who have excelled so magnificently at ping pong.

“Ping pong was invented on the dining tables of England, ladies and gentlemen, in the 19th century. It was, and it was called whiff-whaff.

“And there, I think you have the essential difference between us and the rest of the world. Other nations, the French, looked at a dining table and saw an opportunity to have dinner. We looked at a dining table and saw an opportunity to play whiff-whaff.

“And that is why London is the sporting capital of the world.

“And I say to the Chinese, and I say to the world, ping pong is coming home.”

It was funny, if you’re the sort of person who enjoys watching nothing but Richard Curtis-scripted romcoms with foppish anti-heroes played by ex-public schoolboys cloned from Hugh Grant’s DNA. So it was funny if you live in 1994. Perhaps you do. If so, hello from the future. The world’s a lot scarier over here. We’ve got a f***ing idiot running London, for a start.

If, however, you live in 2008, as I do (at the time of writing), and believe that all those responsible for making ‘Love Actually’ should be hauled before a court to explain their actions, then you might find something slightly unsettling about the face of the London Olympics being an ex-Daily Telegraph journalist who was once recorded on tape offering to help a soon-to-be convicted fraudster looking to track down and beat up a News Of The World reporter.

It should be made clear that there is no suggestion that Johnson ever intended to go through with the plan to track down said reporter – who was never attacked anyway. But the tape doesn’t present Boris in a particularly good light, and he was genuinely mortified when Hislop brought it up on his first appearance on Have I Got News For You in 1998.

Which brings me back to Ian Hislop, and why Boris and the Olympics is all his fault. You see, Boris’ high profile is thanks almost entirely to his seven appearances on Have I Got News For You, all of which were very funny.

Around the time of the London mayoral elections, Hislop encouraged the city’s voters to choose Boris over Ken Livingstone on Have I Got News For You. A large percentage of news reports on Boris during the election campaign referred to his clowning on the show. Private Eye’s coverage of the two main candidates was more sympathetic, in my view, to Boris than it was to Ken. (Boris was generally presented as an unthreatening joke figure. Ken was given a somewhat harder ride.)

Therefore, I would suggest that Hislop, as editor of Private Eye, may have unwittingly helped Boris win the London mayoral election. So if the London Olympics are a complete disaster, you can blame it all on Hislop. If, on the other hand, they’re a success, then maybe he should be the next London mayor.


5 Responses to Ping pong’s coming home

  1. king_pair says:

    Oh do come down off that high horse. It’s so easy to write off anyone who might find Boris to be both competent and enjoyable with some trumped-up false syllogism about Richard Curtis films – in fact it’s totally possible to be entertained by both Boris and Spaced, or whichever uber-trendy Edinburgh Stand-Up the Guardian has told you to enjoy this week. In any case, Wodehouse is a much better point of comparison than Curtis, whose work is lowbrow and populist. You don’t get Pankraton references in Notting Hill.

    Yes, by snidely over-elucidating a throwaway joke (Edward VII, etc), you can rinse it of any scrap of humour. What you can’t do, I’m happy to say, is deter this rare example of a likeable politician from passing on a bit of interesting information or playful turn of phrase that bubbles to the top of his mind, simply because it is indeed interesting, and regardless of whether it figures in his speech notes.

    What makes me laugh most is that you’re dipping into Boris’ own vocabulary to condemn him: “frankly bonkers”!? Tell me you can’t hear that coming from the tousled one’s own mouth… Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I can at least take some comfort in the fact that your Broca’s area clearly knows a good thing when it sees it, even if the rest of the brain hasn’t caught up yet.

  2. mikewhalley says:


  3. king_pair says:

    Well played sir.

  4. Tom says:

    That’ll be the Wodehouse who through years of painstaking effort allied with an abundance of natural talent developed a way of writing books that involved copious notes and an intricate way of weaving plots and detail together to create a wholly believable world of fiction.

    I’m having trouble seeing the resemblance to Boris Johnson, who’s never really had to do much in the way of hard work in his life and exhibits all the self-discipline of a horny terrier on benzedrine. I’m still at a loss as to why a background in classics entitles you to the benefit of the doubt when it comes to your suitability to run a bus network, amongst other things.

  5. king_pair says:

    “Never really had to do much in the way of hard work in his life”? Well, that bus network seems like a fair start, even if you don’t count the magazine editing.

    I’m feeling like I was rather hard on Mike here – we may not agree on the matter of Boris, but a lot of this is great stuff. I particularly enjoyed the aricle about Everton’s stadium, for example. There’s an old-school turn of phrase in his writing which I like a lot – I’ll recommend it to friends. Tom yours, on the other hand, is a bit… I don’t t know… narrow. Fairly dense writing style, language more functional, like an economics paper. I’m not sure who’d get into it except people who agree with you to start with. That seems a bit low-yielding for the effort.

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