Talent and what people do with it
As I watched, with 20 million others, the ITV talent show last Saturday night, with its unimpressive work rate of nine songs in two hours, my mind wandered inevitably to the subject of Tiger Woods and it occurred to me suddenly what this promising young man should do next.
I have never followed Tiger Woods on a golf course, but I have seen him often on television and I have never liked him. I once saw him spitting in public and that was enough. The great killjoy of the last decade, Sir Liam Donaldson (about to retire: hallelujah), the health bureaucrat responsible for the destruction of the British pub, now sitting on 130 million swine flu vaccines that hardly anyone wants, would be with me on this one: spitting in public is a foul habit. Footballers do it all the time, but then they are only footballers. We are entitled to expect better of golfers. Gentleman John Panton, whose portrait hangs outside the secretary's office at the R & A, would have died before he spat in public.
Furthermore – a good leader writer's word – Tiger Woods is surly. Admittedly he has a lot to be surly about. His girlfriends are an execrable bunch. His father was a tyrant. But that is no reason to be so nasty to his army of fans, who proffer their programmes to a player who loathes signing autographs and who owns a yacht called Privacy. He should re-name it Nemesis.
All these thoughts were racing through my head long before Stacey from Dagenham was eliminated from Sunday's play-off between Olly and Joe. I rather took to Stacey from Dagenham, the plucky single mum, whose words collide as they trip off her tongue; she might have a future in musical comedy; a nice kid. No one has ever called Tiger Woods nice; he is in the Nick Faldo league of not-niceness. But as Olly disappeared between the legs of the chorus, running his bottom along the floor of the studio, I began to think almost fondly of nasty Tiger Woods.
He has ability: supreme ability. Yet what is he intending to do with this ability? The present answer is that he intends to squander it by going off in a monumental huff, otherwise known as 'trying to be a better father, husband and person'. He has given up golf for the 'indefinite future'. He is embarking on what his website calls 'a hiatus'. It is all very Oprah Winfrey; all very mod-ern. He is 33 years old, an athlete on top of his game, and yet he is about to become one of the long-term unemployed.
The ability of actors is more enduring than the ability of athletes. I was fortunate to see Alec Guinness in his last production on the London stage. He was compelling: everything he did, his least utterance, the way he moved, the manner in which he stood – it was almost mesmerising. It was artistry of the highest order and yet difficult to articulate why; it was beyond artifice somehow. This was ability of a kind I had never witnessed before and do not expect to witness again. And who was this man for whom, at the end of the evening, an audience of metropolitan cynics rose in a tumultuous outburst of admiration? He was an old man, in his eighties, with not long to live, and as he took curtain call after curtain call he looked done; one sensed at that moment how much each performance extracted and the human cost of all that apparent effortlessness.
On Saturday night, as Olly, Joe and Stacey battled it out, I was reminded of my own childhood and Saturday nights at the Falkirk Roxy. The experiences were not dissimilar. Only the element of competition, essential to the ITV talent show, was missing at the local music hall. I was taken back-stage and introduced to the performers – the turns. I have never quite recovered from the shock, at the age of around nine, of discovering that Joe Petersen, billed as 'the singing choirboy' (don't all choirboys sing? perhaps not) was a rather severe middle-aged woman with a taste for whisky. Little did I realise then that the turn sometimes at the top of the bill, Chic Murray, would come to be acknowledged in death as a comic talent close to genius for his mastery and manipulation of language. Most of the artists at the Falkirk Roxy – for artists is what they were – had complex, messy, troubled personal lives; and so, for that matter, had the great Alec Guinness. But the idea of a 'hiatus' for any of them was unimaginable. They couldn't have afforded such a luxury but, in any case, it was not how they were made. They were made of somewhat sterner stuff.
Olly, Joe and Stacey have limited ability; there isn't much there. But, on Saturday night, they too were going for it. That is what people of ability, any ability, must do. It is their responsibility to the rest of us and to themselves. Tiger Woods cuts a ridiculous figure, not because he dates unsuitable women, not because his pretty Swedish wife doesn't want him any more, but because he has given up. What he needs to do – I decided this as young Joe and George Michael performed their duo on Saturday night – is get back on a golf course as soon as possible. Any tournament will do; I understand there's one in the United States in early January named after Bob Hope. Let him take whatever catcalls the usual idiots in the crowd have to throw at him, go humbly round the course in 68 strokes without spitting, sign autographs graciously at the end, and smile in the face of his tormentors. It's what Bob Hope would have wanted, after all.