Thursday, 2 December 2010

It's the games people play with each other that matter

An excellent test of the character of a town is the quality of its badminton.

When we were living in the Paris region, we were in a beautiful suburb on the West of the City, St Germain-en-Laye. A wonderful town centre with all the most glorious shops you could possibly want – in fact, given the prices they charged, rather more than we could possibly want. There was also a fabulous chateau, where one of the greatest of French Kings, Henry IV was born, or lived, or something – I’m vague on the details. I can confirm that he wasn’t in residence when we were around.

Anyway, it wasn’t the chateau itself that had the charm, it was the extraordinary terrace beyond, where you could walk for ages through formal gardens with a glorious view down to the river Seine and, beyond it, Paris. Unbeatable. Wardown Park in Luton is great, but not quite in the same league, and the river Lea – well, it’s not quite the Seine.

The river Lea in Luton

Majestic view from the terrace in St Germain

Problem is – a view’s a view. You see it once and think it’s wonderful. Maybe even twice or three times. But then – what else are you going to do with it? It stays beautiful, but despite changes in light and weather, well it’s pretty much as beautiful each time. What matters is the people. That’s what really gives a place its charm.

And when it comes to the people in St Germain-en-Laye – I’m reminded of the guardsman’s comment on the Battle of Waterloo: ‘my dear... the noise... and the people.

St Germain was where friends of ours were asked, nay told, by neighbours to take in the futons they had hung out on their balcony to air. Said neighbours had ‘visitors coming round in the afternoon’ and what did our friends think? That ‘this was Naples?’

So I suppose our experience at the badminton club was hardly a surprise. We paid our subscriptions to join (OK, OK, I mean, I paid, I was the moron). We went just once. After an hour hanging around it became clear that no-one already playing was going to leave a court, ever, to let us play. So we left and never came back.

Tonight Danielle and I went to our local club here in Luton. There were only four other people there, all men, playing an intense doubles match when we arrived. It looked as though we’d be obliged to knock up on a court on our own for the whole evening.

Nothing of the sort. The four men finished their match and called us. ‘Come on, we’ll swap in,’ they said. Two of them went off to play singles, and we played a doubles match. So it went on for the time we were there – four playing doubles, two playing singles, swapping around each game.

That’s tolerance, decency and generosity. Would I exchange them for a view? You’ve got to be kidding.

Anyway, to be honest, the Lea’s not that bad. Quite pretty, isn’t it? When you look at the picture closely.

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