Summer has been a festival of sport. Wimbledon was followed by the Open and the Tour de France. More recently, we have had the world swimming and athletics championships. There has been much to admire in the dedication, skill and achievements of competitors. The less savoury aspects of elite sport – the use of banned substances to enhance performance, its exploitation for crude nationalistic purposes and, in some cases, questionable financial arrangements – have been played down, at least for the moment.
In 1945 George Orwell published an article entitled 'The Sporting Spirit'. It was prompted by a brief visit to Britain by the Moscow Dynamo football team which led to much bad feeling, with crowd trouble, abuse of referees and fights among players. Orwell observed that 'sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will' and that 'international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred.' Far from developing character and encouraging healthy team spirit, Orwell maintained that to claim that 'running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue' was simply absurd. He drew a parallel with military conflict:
'Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words, it is war minus the shooting.'
Perhaps Orwell was being deliberately provocative. Many people would regard his views as extreme, but it is hard to deny that gamesmanship and primitive tribalism are still features of many sporting events. A Rangers/ Celtic match can bring out the worst in some players and supporters. Nor are the negative aspects evident only at top levels. Parents supporting their children at local contests sometimes indulge in unpleasant behaviour. At its best, sport can encourage effort, aspiration and justifiable pride. It is a pity it can be so easily disfigured by a desire to win at all costs and by the interventions of the merchants of greed.
I am struck by the phrase 'frantic affability' in Noah Hawley's satirical novel 'A Conspiracy of Tall Men'. It is a quality that fails to bring about what those who employ it hope to achieve. They intend it to make them likeable and popular and, towards this end, they are gushing and excessively complimentary in their dealings with others. What the technique suggests is a desperate desire for approval, an insecure need for acceptance.
Examples include many media presenters, especially on radio music channels and television game and chat shows. One symptom of frantic affability is the use of an inflated verbal repertoire in which words such as 'exciting', 'fantastic', 'incredible' and 'awesome' feature prominently. For some listeners, the constant effort to create an artificially upbeat atmosphere has the opposite effect, leading them to switch off or reach for a sick bag.
All this might not matter if it were confined to the world of celebrities and those who fawn over them, but frantic affability is now part of general culture. It can be seen among the young on social networking sites where the desire to have a long list of 'friends' and attract approval ratings in the form of 'likes' is widespread. Being 'unfriended' is regarded as a form of social death. The overall effect is to promote a form of groupthink, reinforced through networks which encourage insincerity and destroy individuality.
It is time for a counter movement in the shape of sceptical disengagement and linguistic recalibration. Expressions of unjustified enthusiasm should be censured and a more honest and realistic philosophy of social interaction encouraged, one which acknowledges that flattery and charm have distinct limitations.
In the murky world of politics, we are familiar with the gap that often exists between promises and actual achievements. Before elections, politicians are skilled at conjuring up visions of a fairer society and improved services, only to backtrack later and construct an alternative 'narrative' of events which seeks to explain their failures. In the run-up to the creation of the Scottish parliament, electors were assured that things would be different. 'Shaping Scotland's Parliament', a document published in 1998, set out certain key principles designed to make government ministers and MSPs properly accountable to the Scottish people: 'the Scottish Parliament should be accessible, open, responsive and develop procedures which make possible a participative approach to the development, consideration and scrutiny of policy and legislation.'
It would appear that the Scottish government is failing to live up not only to the spirit of this statement but also to the letter of the law, as set out in Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. Before she moved to her new post as Scottish public services ombudsman, Rosemary Agnew, then Scottish information commissioner, criticised government ministers for their poor record in responding to FOI submissions. In June, a group of journalists representing a range of media interests signed a letter expressing concerns about the way the SNP government handled requests. Among other issues, they accused the government of failing to keep records of important meetings and allowing special 'advisors' to screen responses for potential political damage.
Now Scottish Labour has produced figures covering seven years which suggest a pattern of delay and concealment. Over this period, between 35 and 49% of all inquiries were refused, in part or in full, by the Scottish government. Figures from opposition MSPs and the media were higher. This has led the Labour MSP Neil Findlay to state: 'These laws are supposed to increase transparency and accountability of government, but the handling of Freedom of Information requests in recent times has all the hallmarks of a secretive government desperate to dodge scrutiny.'
Predictably, an anonymous government 'spokesperson' sought to defend its record by referring to the increasing volume of FOI submissions. But perhaps if ministers had tried harder to live up to the promise of an 'accessible, open and responsive' approach, such an increase would not have occurred.
Sam Bourne's new thriller carries a disclaimer: 'This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.' The book is entitled 'To Kill the President' and features a volatile demagogue, surrounded by right-wing bigots, who comes close to launching a nuclear attack on North Korea. Remind you of anyone? An assassination plot is hatched within the White House and its development focuses on the moral dilemma of whether it is ever justifiable to kill a democratically-elected political leader who threatens not only social stability within his own country but also the survival of the human race.
Readers who enjoyed Robert Harris's 2007 novel, 'The Ghost', whose central character was a thinly-veiled and highly unflattering version of Tony Blair, might want to add the Bourne book to their holiday reading list.