COLUMN: August 2, 2012

IN AN attempt to enthuse the provinces about The Big Thing In London, several ping-pong tables have been dotted about Liverpool city centre.

I always assumed the name “ping-pong” was adopted to avoid the clumsy term “table tennis table,” but I like the onomatopoeic nature of the name.

In fact, I would be pleased if more sports had alternative titles named after the sounds produced by its participants during the course of playing. Women’s tennis could be “Aieeee-thwack,” synchronised diving could be “wheeeee-ssppllaasshh,” and football could be “I’ve-slept-with-your-wife.”

One of these tables is in the atrium of the Liverpool Post Hyperdome. I pass it a few times a day and it is usually being used for the purpose intended. Men – it is normally men – playing against each other in an attempt to prove which of them is the best at everything, not just table tennis.

I have avoided the whole business – partly because I have been one of The Big Thing In London naysayers, but mostly because I am not good at table tennis. I do not have the speed or co-ordination for small, medium-sized or large sports, or, indeed, walking. I am so bad, an Olympic judge would disqualify me for “not using one’s best efforts to win.”

But I was converted by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s astonishingly good Big Thing In London opening ceremony, and while I am no Clare Balding, I have become more enthusiastic about The Big Thing In London than I could have imagined.

This I discovered as I was walking through the Liverpool Post Hyperdome with my friend Barrie. I appreciate that our combined names sound unlikely, like a double act which came second on one of the heats on the 1976 series of New Faces. But one must bear in mind that he and I used to work the night shift along with a Harry and Larry, which was much worse. Telephone calls used to resemble an Abbott and Costello routine:

–“Barrie, it’s Harry.”

– “It’s not Barrie, it’s Gary, Harry. Did you want Barrie?”

–“Sorry, Barrie, can I speak to Larry.”

– “Tut! Larry, it’s Harry! And tell him it’s not Barrie, it’s Gary.”

I digress. Barrie and I were passing the ping-pong table, and it was unoccupied. Better still, there was nobody around.

“Shall we?” asked Barrie.

Every instinct in my body was screaming at me. They chorused: “If you do this, you will be humiliated. Imagine Boris Johnson dangling from a wire above a laughing crowd, pathetically holding on to two Union Flags, greater humiliation than that.”

But I was buoyed by the opening ceremony, filled with the spirit of Corinth and de Coubertin. I took up my paddle and waited…

If the man who invented the alternative name for table tennis had been watching our match he would have had to have called it merely Ping. Barrie would serve. The ball would bounce once on his side, once on mine, several times on the floor, once off my palm, another several times on the floor, and then I would somehow manage to trap it.

Then I would serve, inverting the process. It was a revelation. Here was somebody as bad at table tennis as me. We were evenly matched, for possibly the first time in my life. Ace serve followed ace serve, entirely by default. Any rallies were purely accidental.

The Olympic spirit descended on that table as two gifted amateurs pitted their skills against each other. The fact that the specific gifts of these amateurs did not include table tennis was irrelevant.

It could not last. A small crowd gathered around us and we were suddenly self-conscious. Somehow, impossibly, we found room for deterioration in our game.

My instincts had been proven correct. There was a definite snigger as I chased the ball across the floor, as if attempting to retrieve a determinedly wayward chicken.

Back at the table, Barrie and I shared a look, a look which said: “If we put these paddles down right now we might escape with our lives.”

And so we fled, confirmed in the knowledge that we have nothing to prove, mostly because we have nothing with which we can prove it.

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