Friday, June 16, 2006

It's time to despair (June 16, 2006)

The World Cup and the rediscovery of Englishness

By Swapan Dasgupta

You can always rely on the Letters column of The Daily Telegraph to reflect the healthy minority view in an England that is changing too fast for comfort. “I do hope”, wrote Andrew Lewis from Warminster in Wiltshire, a part of England which, hopefully, remains frozen in time, “England reach the final (of the FIFA World Cup). Walking the dogs on Saturday afternoon was a joy—not a soul in sight.”

It wasn’t a joy to those hundreds of non-European passport-holders who landed in Heathrow airport last Saturday afternoon and who weren’t blessed with the bright pink access card to the fast track immigration desk. Never in more than three decades have I ever seen the S-shaped queue extend as far back as the very entrance to the gigantic arrivals hall of Terminal 3. The reason: too few manned counters. Like most of England, a bit too many of Her Majesty’s immigration service had taken time off to guzzle large quantities of beer and watch England narrowly beat Paraguay.

Soccer, or football as it is better known, has enthralled the drinking classes of the United Kingdom since late-Victorian times. If “going to the football” on Saturday afternoons was once an affordable leisure option for the working classes in the Midlands and the North, predicting the no-score draws in the pools became the favourite gambling option of the elderly—before the National Lottery arrived. Football pools were such a popular fix that the betting agencies got together to form a pools panel of experts which would identify notional no-score draws in case the weather, or something else, forced an unexpected local cancellation.

English league football was always extraordinarily popular but I don’t think the game was ever as much of an obsession as it has become in the past two decades. Football has not only snuffed life out of other competitive sports—cricket experienced an all-too-brief revival in the summer of 2005 after England won the Ashes unexpectedly—it has captured the soul of England. Courtesy the 20-year-old Wayne Rooney, the most popular Englishman alive today—yes, he is more celebrated than even the 31-year-old legend David Beckham—England must boast the largest number of non-medical metatarsal specialists in the world. So compelling is the national obsession with the World Cup campaign that the whole of public life is being looked at through the unlikely prism of football.

Take national outrage as the starting point. A week ago, a politically-correct head-teacher of a state-run comprehensive school “banned” students from flaunting the Cross of St George—the national flag of England, as opposed to the Union Jack which is the flag of the United Kingdom—on the ground that the flag symbolised the British National Party, an extreme, xenophobic, “White Britain” party. The backlash was swift and quite decisive. The head-teacher was universally denounced as a narrow-minded bigot, taught a few lessons in history and told to take the slow boat to China till the victorious team returned from Germany.

Today, the windows of the less salubrious parts of London are draped with the Cross of St George—I was shocked to notice a couple in a leafy by-lane of Hampstead, only to realise that they had been put there by jolly builders on a refurbishment job. To accommodate national sentiment, the flag is even being flown in Downing Street—though, in deference to protocol, there is also a Union Jack. It’s a far cry from 1966 when, the only visible manifestation of support for England was the Union Jack. This time there is not even the pretence that the masses of Scotland are with the people of England. In a remarkably imaginative editorial “On balance, God probably is English”, The Daily Telegraph put a charitable spin on this departure from good neighbourliness: “Had Tottenham Hotspur played CA River Plate at the height of the Falklands (war), we suspect that a fair number of Arsenal fans would have been cheering the Portenos; but that wouldn’t have meant that they wanted to lose the war.”

Maybe not, but for the land which only a hundred years ago believed that to be born English is to win the first prize in the lottery of life, it’s been a steep journey downhill. It’s being called a “benign patriotism”, considering the good behaviour of the crazies who are camping in Germany indefinitely—so different from the London mob which cheered the victory at Mafeking and torched Italian shops in 1940. To me, an outsider, it looks more like a case of commercially-led patriotism where the flaunting of identity is coupled with confusion over who or what to hate.

The local branch of Sainsbury’s supermarket is selling England jerseys and every conceivable Coach and Horses is advertising a giant screen and happy hour rates for all the lager louts who couldn’t make it to Germany. And McDonald’s, that epitome of un-Englishness, is advertising a larger-than-usual burger which the non-salad eaters can happily devour with their pints while they swear at the TV screen. I didn’t have the insolence to ask the Ritz if they are laying out a special World Cup high-tea, not after being told that the Indian summer will not lead to any relaxation of the dress code. At least there was the reassurance that there are institutions that stand gloriously above Beckham and Posh Spice.

“The rediscovery of Englishness”, claimed high-Tory columnist Charles Moore optimistically, “is beginning…” I wish it was true but the evidence of a revved-up Albion emerging from pickled renderings of “Jerusalem” just isn’t there. Resurgence demands pride and a garnishing of hate. There is no evidence of either. There is an Archie Bunker-type Englishman who is apparently driving round the streets of Hamburg playing the “Dam Busters March” on his ghetto blaster. This pathetic improvisation of John Cleese’s farcical don’t-forget-the-war act in Fawlty Towers has been greeted by bemused incomprehension. Today’s German’s are about as familiar with music from British war movies as they are with Horst Wessel lied. “Don’t let’s be (too) beastly to the Germans”, advised the writer Simon Heffer, even as he defended those English fans who taunted the hosts with Nazi salutes: “The Nazi salute is a way of humorously expressing tribal feelings about a people who were, in living memory, behaving rather badly.” It’s a novel argument but begs the immediate question: why are English fans the badly-behaved of today?

Keen to be the perfect hosts, the Germans have apparently been told to avoid releasing their lovely Alsation dogs on the yobs and not get provoked when a demented fool shouts “Sieg Heil”. So far they have been models of restraint. But the real reason why English fans haven’t been set upon is not because the travellers are less obnoxious but because in no other country is football the driving force of nationalism. I wouldn’t like to be in England the evening it is knocked out of the World Cup.

In most countries, waving the flag in football matches is bit of old-fashioned fun. In England, it’s not a case of nationalism hijacking a sport, it is sport being appropriated by a patriotism that has lost all other resonance. England has an attractive football side. Its fans love the game quite genuinely. Many more are knowledgeable about football in England than they are about cricket in India. Yet, every popular sport must bear the burden of a claque. But imagine if footballer’s wives became social celebrities and the chants of beer-soaked individuals became national songs?

It’s time to despair about England.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, June 16, 2006)

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