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June 26, 2009
This week, Iran's possible push toward what could be the most important political upheaval of this generation has been largely relegated off the front pages by the news that, amidst a tidal wave of tennis matches where players ranked higher than their opponent won and players ranked lower than their opponent lost, there occurred a number of tennis matches involving British players in which exactly the same thing happened.
Alright, Anne Keothavong lost to a lower ranked player, but it’s OK because afterwards the press made her cry. They achieved this worthy feat by intimating, with a tact not seen since Rick Salomon dedicated his sex tape with Paris Hilton to the victims of 9/11 (seriously), that in losing her tennis match she had let the British public down.
It’s often suggested, by those sublimely troubling people who bemoan the passing of the good old days, that the British national identity has been or is being lost. Well, ignoring the vast swathes of British tradition that we should all rightly forget, the simple truth is that tribalism is alive and well, just in all the wrong places. It was certainly in the reporting of the Air France plane crash earlier this month, where for nearly a day the nationalities of the dead were unknown and ethnocentrism didn’t know whether to rule the day or not. If all the casualties were French, it just wasn’t a big story, but one British person could elevate it right up to the top of the bulletins.
If this was our predicament, imagine the quandary facing American networks, where FOX can call a daily news segment ‘Around the World in 80 Seconds’ without any trace of irony, and where Tarantino's prescribed banality of what the French call a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese was actually quite fascinating. (Incidentally, the French also call The Louisiana Purchase, ‘Le Vente de la Louisiane’ - The Louisiana Sale. One can only imagine the extent to which you could blow the minds of a few of the passportless...) Eventually the nationalities were revealed, and the story about five Britons dying quickly superseded the story about 228 people dying.
I’m not suggesting that this was inappropriate, just that the idea that national cohesion is crumbling is nonsense. Certainly in sports, we are astonishingly quick at getting behind British sportsmen, forming an opinion on them and, of course, appropriating the victory for ourselves. We watch, and it’s instantly as if we have been getting up with them for 5am training sessions for years and been supporting them around the world. It’s almost as if we know anything about them beyond their names and faces.
For some reason the British players having a poor Wimbledon matters to the British consciousness. British first, tennis second. Only once the Brits are out will tennis fans revert to their genuinely favourite players (while the non-tennis fans will just switch off), because national affinity subsumes all else. Isn’t it all just a bit too colourless? ‘We are all patchwork,’ wrote Montaigne, ‘so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment plays its own game, and there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.’ Whilst it is fine to support your country, it seems as if the act of the nation getting behind a sportsman is too often devoid of that sober self-awareness of the inconsistency of our beliefs and actions needed to really apprehend that enviable complexity of character that Montaigne describes.
Consider the Hatton-Mayweather fight last year. Ricky Hatton’s favourite comedian is Bernard Manning, he is mates with Noel Gallagher and Roy Chubby Brown. He’s an unprofessional loudmouth throwback, an arrogant, painfully small-time embarrassment. Mayweather is a great of his generation, the simple illustration of what a modern fighter should be, quicker, smarter, wittier, more professional, better to watch artistically, aesthetically and strategically than Hatton. But Ricky is British and so, unsubtle as it may be, we should all get behind him.
In abhorring Hatton, I was glad that our environment isn’t quite equivalent to that of the US, where that barbed epithet 'Unamerican' can still be used to stifle all sorts of rational opinions even half a century after McCarthyism. But the topic of Britishness does seem to play on people’s minds and often bubbles up into popular debate. When it does, myriad lazy hacks inevitably descend, constructing those articles that at some point consult either the list that starts with A Sense of Fair Play, the list that starts with Imperialistic Arrogance, or the list that starts with Cricket, Civic Societies and the BBC; none of which really pass hazily in front of our eyes when a Brit wins a gold medal in canoeing.
Just as there’s a narrative to every national identity, there’s a narrative to every national identity crisis. Going back to Montaigne, the difference between us and ourselves is also that difference between us and how we see ourselves. On a large scale that’s all a national identity is, because such things are only ever a concern of the country itself. Do the French talk about the British rolling landscapes, rich language and a deeply instilled sense of law? Of course not, they call us Rosbifs and get on with their lives. (What a thoroughly even-handed nickname that is, by the way – could the same be said about ‘Frogs’?)
Put another way, perhaps the story of national identity is the story of a country’s relationship with its history. Speaking as a literature student, the modern American condition often seems to be about the search for definition, while the modern South African one resists and pre-empts definition and tries to redefine itself; the 19th century Indian condition was one of self-mythologising, in an attempt to kickstart a proud tradition. The modern British condition is perhaps characterised by a concern over a loss of an identity that, in truth, rarely existed in the eyes of the world – and when it did exist it was because it was earned, and those kind of reputations need to keep being earned.
We all know John Major’s much-derided old quote that in fifty years warm crickety beer will remain; I think it is an excellent misty-eyed dampener to alarmists, because a third of his fifty years later, such things have remained. These days Major's quote is a great argument against encasing Britishness in protective glass. We should celebrate a fluid Britishness as a triumph of progressive individuality, and blogs are a great example of this – they show that generally we have nothing substantial to contribute, but we can if we want and that’s the most important thing.
That’s one reason why Ayatollah Khamenei’s paper-thin anti-British posturing is ill-advised beyond simply being a signal of his desperate diversionary tactics. In holding the West responsible for the Iranian protests and the protestors’ two-way media empowerment, Khamenei illustrates perhaps the most impressive tenet of the Western philosophy – its glorification of individuality and its constructed framework that offers anyone the potential to make their voice heard, regardless of how asinine their two cents may be.