Last Saturday, while watching Preston North End hammer Bristol City, I was struck not for the first time by the sight of my fellow fans sporting headphones. Now, it’s possible that some were listening to music. Perhaps the spectacle of Stephen Elliott bludgeoning the visiting defence is further enhanced by St Matthew’s Passion or Girls Aloud belting into your eardrums. But I’d wager that the majority was listening to the local radio commentary of the very game they were watching. And this got me wondering: why is commentary so important to us? Why does the thing itself, unfolding unmediated before our eyes, not quite satisfy us? Whether our temple be church, mosque, synagogue or Deepdale Stadium, can we not worship silently and without guidance?
Commentary has, of course, been around a lot longer than the football league. Ever since Moses brought the Law to the people, the letter of it has been up for discussion. Like the biblical version, football commentary falls into two main categories, oral and written. But it was not until comparatively late in the live television age that football commentary became truly Talmudic in character. Watch an old Pathé news broadcast and, the odd rhetorical flourish aside, you will hear a clear summary of the key moments in the match. Early live commentaries were even simpler, with the commentator often just intoning the name of the player on the ball. Such transparent reportage was a world apart from its more complicated Talmudic counterpart.
Of course, the Talmud is a tool of elucidation and enlightenment. And yet, paradoxically, it relies on obscurity to generate its insights. For since God is — if we overlook the design of camels and the Jewish cornea — infallible, it follows that not only the obvious meaning of His Word, but any possible meaning is both intentional and true. The task of the scholar, then, is to willfully misread the Torah in order to find new meanings, however outlandish, latent within the text. From the soil of this misreading then springs the tangled garden of interpretation, argument and storytelling that constitutes the Midrash.
Of course, the task of misreading is made infinitely easier by the foibles of ancient Hebrew writing. Lacking characters for vowels, it presents a feast of potential ambiguity in virtually every sentence. To see why, imagine written English bereft of its vowels. I take a sentence at random – in this case drawn from the climactic love scene of my favourite Gothic romance The Castle of Ferebranco. Here the eponymous hero surprises his long-lost Imogen just as she is about to do herself in with an ornamental hairpin: Ferebranco? Of all men – you!
Stripped of its vowels, however, this becomes Frbrnc? f ll mn – y!— which can just as easily be read as a statement of the traditional Jewish attitude to stoicism in infirmity: Forbearance? If ill I moan – oy! Now, if we then remove capital letters and punctuation, and run the words together, the feast of possibilities becomes a banquet. Again, consider what would happen in English. The following sentence, gleaned from an old edition of the Scarborough Evening News — Boat jaunt to Whitby ends in tragedy — is now be rendered btjnttwhtbyndsntrgdy — which could be interpreted a dozen ways beside the Gazette’s version, including But Jeanette, what boy needs an etrog a day?
It was exactly this question, coincidentally, that I texted to my wife last week, as we fretted across the airwaves about our son worrying exotic citrus habit. And I’ve no doubt that, had I succumbed to SMS convention and eschewed my vowels, she’d have been halfway to Yorkshire in her black cloche hat and shades before you could say Olav Hashalom.
Which brings me, somewhat Aggadically, back to commentary, and the funereal tones of Barry Davies. What Hamlet brought to family get-togethers, Davies brought to football matches. While Brian Moore wittered and Clive Tyldesley chirped, Davies lamented, mourning every mislaid pass and mistimed tackle as a personal loss. Not since the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in 70 A.D. has a commentator sounded so relentlessly miserable, or, you suspected, enjoyed his misery so much.
But it was not until the arrival of John Motson that football commentary achieved a truly Talmudic character. Motson (or The RAMBLE, as scholars dub him) began his career in the traditional manner, of neutral description: ‘Channon to Keegan,’ might go a typical line of Motsonian commentary. With age, Motson has started to interpret events with increasing eccentricity. Say, for example, a player is tackled on the edge of the box, the ball runs out of play, the linesman points his flag and the referee signals a corner. These are the signs and symbols awaiting interpretation. Many a commentator will remark, perhaps, ‘Strong tackle from the full-back…and it’s gone out for a corner.’ Motson, however, alive as he is to the fruits of misreading, is liable to say something like, ‘Ooh! And that looked a bit…goodness me! He’s given a penalty! Well, would you believe it, Mark? He’s given a penalty.’ Mark Lawrenson, meanwhile, in the finest tradition of the rabbinical student, will gently put him right, ‘Erm, not sure about that, John. I think it might just be a corner.’ But by now it’s too late. ‘Well, then! A penalty it is,’ Mottie burbles on, ‘And, you know, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this, Mark, since Franny Lee against Huddersfield in 1967.’ And he’s off, on an epic, elliptical journey that takes in three recent, irrelevant games, the size of the crowd, the players’ strike of 1909, the various historical names the stadium, the weather, the dangers of asbestos, and, repeatedly, how this all effects England’s chances in the Euros (it doesn’t), before returning to the game at hand, and something else that isn’t happening in it. In true Talmudic style, what emerges is a magnificent edifice of words and ideas built upon an abyss of more or less total delusion.
Yet, as the Christian scholar Earl E. Bath points out, the kingdom of heaven too is built upon the void. I listened to Davies because his gloom made me giggle. I listen to Motty because his meandering stream of consciousness is a pleasure to hear flow by. So pass me my headphones, love – my own eyes aren’t quite enough.