Monday, 6 May 2013

Celebrate the gifted amateur, but spare a thought for the other variety

Don’t we all admire the gifted amateur? So inspiring. So selfless. So courageous.

Do you remember the film Chariots of Fire? Look at Lord Andrew Lindsay. He joined Harold Abrahams, the driven, striving Jew, running not just for the joy of athletics but to mark a victory over anti-Semitism, in attempting the ‘Caius dash’ round the courtyard of Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge. Lindsay helps push Abrahams along to success, while not quite making it himself.

At the 1924 Olympics, Lindsay takes a silver medal, the ideal result: so good as to suggest that he might have taken gold had he pushed himself harder like all those nasty semi-professionals, including Abrahams or the Yanks, but just off the top step of the podium, so as to maintain a becoming modesty.

Then of course Lindsay steps aside from his other event, the 200 metres, to give Eric Liddle the chance to compete in his place. Liddle wouldn’t run in the 100 metres because his Christian principles wouldn't allow him to take part in heats held on a Sunday; Lindsay’s sacrifice made it possible for him to win his gold medal at the longer distance.

Wonderful stuff, eh? Self-effacing. Noble in the truest sense of the word. All for the spirit of the thing. He even tells Liddell that he’s doing it ‘just to see you run.’ I can’t remember if he adds ‘old chap’, but you can feel the words are there. Such a decent fellow, so civilised. It would almost make me want to doff my cap, if I was into that kind of thing and owned a cap.

But Lindsay is the quintessence of the gifted amateur. What about the other kind?

I have to admit that for a long time I saw myself as one of them. The flattering idea was born in an interview when my soon-to-be boss declared me to be ‘ideally unqualified’ for the job, and appointed me anyway.

Sadly, however, more recently I’ve had to accept that I naturally belong to the ungifted category. And nowhere more so than when it comes displaying any kind of skill in manual work.

For instance, some months ago I proudly constructed two woodsheds at the bottom of our garden. I had help, I confess, but not that much. I did most of the work myself.


True I was working from kits. So the construction didn’t really require great skill. All I had to do was assemble the parts in the right order. Which makes it slightly galling that I didn’t quite manage that simple task.

Most flagrantly, I came unstuck with the roofs, These were made from overlapping planks of wood. Put them one way round, and rainwater would run delicately off one plank onto the next one, which is below it. Trouble is, put it the other way round and the rain will, equally delicately, run down to the next plank, which is above it, form a pool and then leak through.

Onto the logs underneath.

Work of the ungifted amateur:
the roof traps the water and leaks it gently onto the wood beneath
It does seem terribly unfair that, given that the roofs could only be put on in one of two positions, I got it wrong in both cases.

The result is that having gone to considerable trouble and expense to make sure we had good, seasoned, dry wood to burn in our stove this winter, my wife has struggled throughout the season to kindle a flame from damp fuel.

Fortunately a wonderful builder is putting in a path in our garden for us.

‘I can sort that for you,’ he assured us, ‘in about five minutes.’

It was welcome news as I hadn’t been able to unscrew either roof in thirty minutes of trying. And he was good as his word, correcting the problem in a way that made me understand what ‘in a jiffy’ really meant.

Fixed by the  professional
The water flows away and the shed does its job of protecting the wood

It’s comforting to know that our two sheds, intended to protect our wood from rain, will now be doing just that instead of exactly the opposite.

I suppose I can console myself with the thought that at least I equalled Lord Andrew Lindsay’s performance. I took the silver medal. Though, sadly, there were no other competitors to finish behind me. And what I came second to was a lump of wood.

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