The blissful summer normality of the Australian Open tennis has been especially welcome during this otherwise tragically abnormal summer.
It has been somehow psychologically helpful to have some regular things, like the Open's fixed and dependable fortnight staged yet again at the same Melbourne Park in dear, permanent Melbourne, at this time of shocks, surprises and unfamiliar dreads. There is much discussion of our beloved Australia becoming "uninhabitable". In such a context, the normalcy of the Australian Open fortnight feels somehow soothing.
Soothed, but thrilled, I've watched rather more than usual of this Open on TV because Canberra's famously worst-in-the-world air (officially "very poor" and "unhealthy for sensitive groups" as I write this) has kept indoors so many of us who would otherwise be outdoors actually playing tennis and engaging in other lung-testing activities. Now that I am 74 (only another 10 years and I will be eligible to contribute to The Canberra Times' letters page!) I suddenly belong to the "sensitive group" of the elderly. More of this, this summer's forced indoorsiness, later in the column.
Readers, if you love your tennis and are having an enthralled Open fortnight, what, if anything, would you change about tennis to improve it?
As ever I would do something to abolish the "ace" from men's tennis. A serve that an opponent cannot even get a racquet to censors all possibility of a rally (an exchange of strokes) and spoils tennis as a spectacle. An ace is a wowser that bans pleasures it disapproves of.
It is time to abolish the ace, taking away from the game's Goliaths all the vulgar advantages they have by being taller and more bemuscled than their more poetic, slightly built opponents, the sport's Davids. One way to do this might be to give everyone only one serve, so that the server has to show some restraint and caution and not simply fire that serve out of his bazooka.
Kept indoors so much by hazardous air, I have somehow been reminded, because I am so cultured, of the popular poem Thank You, Fog by the wondrous W.H. Auden (1907-1973).
To explain, the poet thanks a dense fog (shutting down all possibilities of travel and transport) for trapping, blissfully, four good friends together at Christmas in a mansion in the Wiltshire countryside. Auden thanks the fog for providing this heavenly "interim", during which the awfulness of the wider world was shut out and the friendly four, kept indoors, wallowed in "reminiscence and reading, crosswords, affinities, fun". The poem ends with a heartfelt "thank you, thank you, thank you, fog."
Your columnist, a glass-three-quarters-full person (something else that makes me ineligible for the Times' letters pages, dominated as they are by miserabilists), has found a similar virtue even in the late-maligned Canberra smogs. Auden praises fog as smog's "unsullied sister", but that seems unkind to smog. I am moved to speak up for her with a reverent prose parody of Auden's ideas. Here goes.
Thank you, smog. Grown used to Canberra's usually chaste hygienic weather, and all too familiar with the city's medicinal winter fog, you, her debauched but far more interesting sister, I'd never known. Now look what you've just brought to Canberra's summer!
Sworn foe to vigorous outdoor exercise (my frail septuagenarian lungs flinching at the rumours the Air Quality Index spreads about your hazardously particle-infested air), you've been lured to vulgarly bustle in (a bit like coarse, unwelcome Summernats) to the ACT's bailiwick for weeks on end this ugly Summer.
You've kept indoors all of us normally out mindlessly playing tennis, boganly jogging our 10 kilometres a day and walking our ungrateful mastiffs in parks and beside lakes.
But how delighted I am.
MORE FROM IAN WARDEN:
Outdoors a shapeless silence, the landscape blotted out or blurred. Birds (especially the delicate ravens) wheezing and coughing. Few humans daring to take excursion risks, leaving national institutions eerily bereft of visitors.
But here indoors, my runners, tennis shoes and the mastiff's leash gathering lichen in their closets, I at last have world enough and time for YouTube's orgies of discovery - and karaoke.
A typical day.
In the morning, in scholarly black and white, the 1963 adaptation for TV of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler starring (swoon!) Ingrid Bergman.
In the afternoon, Orson Welles' majestic 1951 movie of Shakespeare's Othello, filmed on location over a three-year period in Morocco, Venice, Tuscany, and Rome.
In the evening, the house jiving on its foundations, every single one of Billy Joel's greatest hits video clips, complete with lyrics so one can sing along. So, for example, I'm sharing Billy's working-class dream of successfully wooing that Uptown Girl (in Canberra she probably lives in upper Yarralumla) who's been living in her white-bread world, for just about as long as anyone with hot blood can, subconsciously looking for a downtown man, that's what I am (for I live in lower Garran).
So, happily trapped indoors in my fibro bungalow by floozy smog rather as Auden was trapped indoors in a Wiltshire mansion by a virginal fog, I'm feasting on all the Shakespeare, Ibsen, Billy Joel, Sibelius, ABBA and everything that the miracle of YouTube makes possible. My mind is enlarging, my horizons (while outdoor's horizons shrink closer and closer in the murk) widening and widening as in my room with my desktop I go effortlessly to Morocco, Venice, Tuscany and Rome.
For this special Canberra interim, so indoorsy yet so outgoing, thank you, thank you, thank you, smog.