The proposed expansion of the site of the Wimbledon tennis championships has not gone down well. The All England Club wants to triple the size of its premises and construct 39 new courts, one of which will have an 8,000-seater stadium. The application has received more than 1,000 objections and only 27 letters of support, though, to be honest, I’m not sure who writes letters of support for planning applications. It would be like contacting Ofcom to say you’d enjoyed a television programme. So I expect that’s 27 letters from the stadium architect’s mum.
Why does Wimbledon want to get bigger? Isn’t it nice as it is? Why the aspiration to change? It’s out of character for an institution that has resolutely resisted pressure to get rid of the grass or dress code. What do they need all the extra space for? “Our aim is to keep the championships at the pinnacle of tennis and to deliver tangible benefits for our communities,” said a spokeswoman for the club.
Well, at the moment, the club’s communities don’t seem to want the tangible benefits, whatever they are, so let’s focus on the first part. Wimbledon is apparently to be kept at the pinnacle of tennis by being able to hold its qualifying tournament on site instead of in nearby Roehampton. All the other grand slams host their own preliminary rounds so perhaps this is a long-standing embarrassment for the All England Club. It feels like it doesn’t have off-street parking or has to take its washing to a launderette.
I don’t know what I think about this. On the one hand, I don’t blame the club for wanting the extra space and the bonus stadium. On the other hand, the current system seems to work OK and I’m suspicious of arguments based on the premise that “if you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards” – that something apparently has to change in order to maintain something, “to keep the championships at the pinnacle of tennis”. It’s conservative rhetoric deployed in support of aggrandisement and it’s one of the reasons we’re a society obsessed with GDP growth and are dutifully rendering the planet uninhabitable while not having that much fun.
I was trying to work out my conclusions when I noticed what the land earmarked for the Wimbledon expansion is currently used for. It’s a small golf course. Eighteen holes but it only occupies 73 acres and most 18-hole courses are well over 100. For context, the entire current All England Club grounds total 42 acres. Wembley Stadium is under 20.
One of the world’s greatest linguistic injustices is the name “crazy golf”. Why is it crazy? I’d say a compact, light-hearted seaside game, where the aim is to hit a ball through various jolly and eye-catching obstacles into a hole, has entirely maintained its grip on sanity. The levity in the presentation is very much in keeping with the time-wasting futility of the activity. It can be fun but it is not something that matters. Packaging it as if it does is what would seem mad.
Golf may use a lot of space, but it’s still less than one-thirtieth of the land owned by the aristocracy
It is normal golf, not crazy golf, that’s crazy. Imagine golf was being pitched to you as a sport in a world where it didn’t already exist. It’s a game for two or four players where the aim is to knock a small ball into a hole using a club and the winner is whoever does that in the fewest hits. So far, so sane. You need a ball and a club, maybe a few clubs. Gloves, shoes, a bag for the clubs, these are nice extras. Oh and one other thing: you also need about 120 acres of land that must have been extensively and weirdly landscape-gardened, require constant maintenance and which anyone except the small handful actually playing golf have to keep clear of. In terms of coexisting with other users of outdoor space it’s an activity only marginally more inclusive than testing nuclear weapons.
This reminds me of my childhood when my parents used to close up the sitting room in winter to save on heating costs. So I would occupy it with my Star Wars toys for long, chilly months. Then, when the time came for the whole family to start using the room again, I would resist. All my figures and ships and tiny guns were arranged how I liked them, secreted among sofa cushions and footstools, ready to re-enact the battle of Hoth amid the icy fibres of the hearthrug. But I would have to move them because, as my dad would say: “We can’t give over a huge section of our living space just for you to play your game.”
Britain has been a more indulgent parent to its golfers, allowing them to turn a total area the size of Greater Manchester into courses. That’s not much less than the combined area covered by the roofs of houses. This is despite the fact that fewer than one in 10 of us play golf. The sitting room of my parents’ house was probably a similar proportion of the area of the whole house and garden as are golfed on in Britain today and yet I constituted a whopping 25% of the population. I was only asking for Star Wars to be accorded 40% of the respect that society routinely pays to golf.
I don’t really mind all the golf. It may use a lot of space, but it’s still less than one-thirtieth of the land owned by the aristocracy and there are a lot more golfers than aristocrats. Plus I think it’s nice to leave a bit of a mystery to future civilisations trying to work out what the hell we were about. The painstakingly reconstructed archaeological remains of all the vast golf courses, all the greens and fairways and bunkers and flags and pro shops, will, like the Easter Island heads, baffle and divide the academics of future aeons. What was it for? Was it a religious thing? A fertility rite? What was the significance of the holes?
Still, the idea that each one of the world’s four tennis grand slams might occupy roughly the same area as each one of the world’s 38,864 golf courses doesn’t feel particularly crazy.