On my first afternoon in Shanghai, word came round that an Englishman, Geoff Dyer, was in trouble at the Academy of Writers. We jumped into a cab and raced over. Geoff, we found, was being whipped all over a ping-pong table by a Chinese author. We offered all possible forms of encouragement short of Rule, Britannia and God Save the Queen. Chinese writers gathered to support their colleague. ‘Go easy on the poor foreigner,’ they cried.
When Geoff retired, I stepped up to the plate against a writer my own age, slightly more gnarled and with the most benign of smiles. I actually took two consecutive points off him – I know this for a fact because it was reported next morning in the Shanghai press – but I put that down to luck and desperation. ‘I had no way of telling what kind of spin he put on his serve,’ sighed Geoff. My tactic was to predetermine a forehand return, and pray.
Then two of the Chinese writers started playing each other and we realised just how gentle they had been with us. These are professional writers, some of them on state salaries, who gather at their club in the French Concession at the end of a day to unwind on the green wood. They were absolutely dazzling.
A thought occurred: if writers can be this hot at ping-pong, what about musicians? Probably twice as sharp. Invite the right musicians and the public will pay to watch.
So who’s in my first world ping-pong games for piano players? I’m counting on Mr Hough to captain England and M Aimard to lead for France. Ms Hewitt will walk out a strong Canadian group and the Swiss will send send over a battery of tax exiles. Let us know if you’d like to nominate a pianist who’s good enough to play the best. Ping-pong, that is.
Inevitably, on the form seen in Shanghai, the final will be Lang Lang vs Yundi, but Sky will buy the TV rights and the whole world will watch agog.
Here’s the Olympic anthem: