Zen Master With His Pants on Fire

by Mark English

The commentary, in many cases, is more important than the thing itself. This applies especially to competitions of various kinds.

For example, for me the main attraction of the Eurovision Song Contest was listening to Terry Wogan describe it. It certainly was not the music.

For many years, Wogan covered the event, gently ridiculing just about everyone and everything involved, including the host country’s presenters, the singers and the songs and all the absurd little rituals involved (the judges’ reports from the various European capitals, the counting up of points (in French), etc.). Wogan claimed that all he did was say what the viewing audience was thinking – or just about to think. It was a communal thing, and much of the humor was dependent on shared cultural attitudes and would not necessarily be appreciated by a wider (e.g. global) audience.

I want to focus here, however, on an example which transcends cultural barriers: Graeme Murray Walker, graduate of Sandhurst (the Royal Military Academy), and celebrated motorsport commentator.

Sport is underrated in intellectual circles: it’s seen as less real than the real world. I’m not suggesting that it’s more real but rather that it’s a part of the real world.  Like war, it represents a realm in which the visceral dramas of life are heightened. Certain sports and games represent life’s dilemmas in a pure and concentrated form and provide valuable opportunities for observing human behavior and, in particular, for tracking how individual personalities cope with very stressful situations, morally and in other ways. But more than this, games and sports, each in their own way, are emblematic of life.

My knowledge of and interest in motor racing is slight. Whatever interest I have derives from my childhood, when racing car drivers had a kind of mythic ambience, related I think to the fact that, like matadors, they routinely cheated death. As Murray Walker put it: “Motor racing can never be safe, and it never should be in my opinion.”

Walker was known as “the voice of Formula One.” He was the voice of Formula One. (We are talking here about an international Grand Prix series involving high-end open-wheel cars; IndyCar would be the American equivalent.)

“Even in moments of tranquility,” noted Clive James, “Murray Walker sounds like a man whose trousers are on fire.” Quite so. He was all high-octane excitement and (in his later years at least) confusion. But it was glorious confusion.

“I’m in my usual state up here in the commentary box,” he once said. “High tension, heart beating like a trip hammer, whatever that is.”

Looking through various things, he is reputed to have said you can see a strange logic at work (or perhaps at play). I can’t resist citing a few of these examples with my own (minimal) commentary.

Some of the statements involve an unusually high level of semantic redundancy. For example: “That’s history. I say ‘history’ because it happened in the past.” Well, yes. At least that is clear. He will certainly not be misunderstood.

Or again (only slightly more informative): “With half the race gone, there is half the race still to go.”

Or: “And that just shows you how important the car is in Formula One racing.” Like the horses in horse racing, I guess.

Sometimes the redundancy has a certain Zen quality about it: “He can’t decide whether to leave his visor half open or half closed.”

Walker also seems to be struggling with deep issues relating to free will: “Schumacher wouldn’t have let him past voluntarily. Of course, he did it voluntarily, but he had to do it.”

The curiously fixed and yet seemingly relative nature of time fascinates him: “Even in five years time, he will still be four years younger than Damon Hill.”

Other remarks seem to affirm the basic principles of classical logic, in this case, the law of excluded middle: “Either the car is stationary, or it’s on the move.”

But often a first clause is seemingly undermined by a second: “The lead car is unique, except for the one behind it which is identical.” Sometimes this habit almost suggests a commitment to a form of dialetheism: “Well, now we have exactly the same situation as at the beginning of the race, only exactly opposite.”

He also seems to be working with a non-standard form of arithmetic: “There are seven winners of the Monaco Grand Prix on the starting line today, and four of them are Michael Schumacher.”

Sometimes his speculations seem to involve unconscious or mystical forms of knowing: “I’ve no idea what Eddie Irvine’s orders are, but he is following them superlatively well.”

There is a certain Gödelian quality to some of his musings: “I should imagine that conditions in the cockpit are totally unimaginable.”

Others are suggestive of the strange visual creations of M.C. Escher. Or rather, he speaks as an inhabitant of Escher-land might speak when viewing the banal realities of the real world, as if they were something new and strange: “The circuit is interesting because it has inclines and declines. Not just up, but down as well.”

There is also a charming, Leibnizian quality to his view of life. He was relentlessly optimistic. For example: “There’s nothing wrong with the car, except that it’s on fire.”

I can’t help but feel that this last remark is, in some strange way, emblematic of the human situation. We avert our eyes from life’s always-alarming trajectory and carry on. In order to carry on, we must avert our eyes.

6 Comments »

  1. Well written and amusing.

    Sports commentators often have a unique perspective on what and how language communicates. On the one hand, they’re utterly superfluous; yet we seem to need them to enhance the sense we’re engaged in a shared experience. Certainly they become part of the show of the sports broadcast, sometimes more interesting then the sport itself, as you remark.

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  2. Marc

    Thanks. Yes, some of those Murray Walker quotes are gems. For me, the funniest things are not jokes, not things that are deliberately said to be funny, but rather Walkerisms or Spoonerisms or the things you sometimes hear children say.

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  3. David

    Thanks for the link. I hadn’t caught up with the burning piano. “Nothing says Eurovision like a man playing a piano on fire.” Well, this applies to *recent Eurovision* at any rate. I would say that it aspired to be more serious in the past – and so was funnier or at least provided more scope for satirical commentary.
    Cultural differences were also more evident.

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  4. ejwinner

    Thanks.

    “On the one hand, they’re utterly superfluous…”

    It’s probably overstating it to call them superfluous. Obviously radio commentators are not superfluous! And with TV, it depends on the sport. F1 racing is incredibly confusing to watch (mainly because of the pit stops) and you really need the commentators not only to explain the strategies and so on but also sometimes to help you figure out who’s actually in the lead.

    “… yet we seem to need them to enhance the sense we’re engaged in a shared experience.”

    And a significant and important one.

    PDQ Bach did a football-style commentary on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (Some versions are better than others.)

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