Monday, 2 July 2012

Patriotism is not enough

When Madame la Pompadour addressed Louis V as "France" in bed, it was not in tribute to his sexual heroics.....

Lord Kitchener is dead, but his finger still points during sporting events. Why are we all supposed to want a British tennis player to win more than a Swiss, Serb or German whose game, court demeanour or media-invented personality we might prefer? Why should a reluctant hero who has never wanted to do anything except excel at his sport have to be burdened with national expectation? And why should any of us be made to feel guilty if we don't want him to win? He'll end up being a glorious loser, winning over our hearts even if we hadn't wanted him to win the match, and then we'll feel guilty about that, too, as we send another innocent to emotional extremity for the old lie, dulce et decorum ist pro patria mori, and all for our vicarious thrill, lapping up his tears, that he sheds for us, not himself, in a prize-giving more like a Shakespearean last act, let down by an outsized silver plate instead of a crown.

A sportsman isn't King Arthur or Robin Hood, Henry V or Nelson, the conscious hero, standing on deck with his star blazing, or even Sherlock Holmes, whose 1940s incarnation outwitted the Nazis and on whose reasoning powers we still rely for salvation, along with more lugubrious detectives, all of them disposing mortal messes like deities.

When they are being paid more for a match than some of us earn in our lives, professional players should remember that they have a public duty to entertain, not just play for their own satisfaction, but why should we feel bound to support their nationality rather than their individuality? Wimbledon is not the Davis Cup, it is not a team event, it is a festival of athleticism and gladiatorial spectacle, with a dramatic narrative that engages even non-sports fans, and for those with a nostalgic eye for white and green, and an appetite for strawberries and cream, it is the loveliest looking and tasting tennis tournament in the world. Tribalism at Wimbledon, the painted faces and patriotic war cries, has as much primal dignity as a SW19 children's party.

Why when a British born actor wins an Oscar, deservedly or not, are we expected to react as if they've reached the pinnacle of Everest and stuck a flag on it? You can't measure art like a race. It's not a competition, least of all a national one. You'd think Apollo and all his muses had defected from Parnassus and claimed UK citizenship. Or as if the whole country had won millions of pounds worth of investment in arts and education, when in reality the only beneficiaries are a handful of film companies and the actor's agent. What happened to sport and art without boundaries? Wasn't it Hitler who turned the Olympics into a nationalist event?

Your country wants you - but is it the country you want? Flying the flag has never been more compulsory and embarrassing than now, in frenzied motions that suggest doubt rather than confidence in a sense of national identity. There is no point denying that to get through times of economic hardship as much as war, people need a rousing spectacle, more profound than a circus. Thousands disregarded the wind and rain to witness the flotilla; thousands more who watched vicariously on TV felt cheated by the BBC's insultingly bathetic coverage, that missed the popular mood and carried on the broadcaster's policy of inverted snobbery, a middle-class Oxbridge-educated dictatorship treating its audience like morons. I didn't see the flotilla, real or televised, but I heard all about the viewers' betrayal. The little old lady floating in the middle of it all knew that her function was to be a metaphor, not a hero. When Madame la Pompadour addressed Louis V as "France" in bed, it was not in tribute to his sexual heroics.

Authentic heroes are often better cast internationally than at home. Most Europeans would rather have Obama as their leader than their own Prime Ministers and monarchs - he is probably more popular over here than in America. Plundering the world, even our enemies, for heroes, is not a new thing: the English culturally assimilated Joan of Arc after burning her, and preferred William Wallace to Edward "Hammer of the Scots" the First long before Mel Gibson.The 13th century English church picked on a martyred Roman soldier from the Middle East to be its patron saint. Once colonized, they had to lose their foreign accents, and became English.

There are times for nationalism in sport, when the Spanish football team won at the right moment for their country, a victory for a country in crisis, whole generations struggling for livelihoods and a future. In the online newspapers, the report of a match which was inspiring to everyone, whatever their birthplace, was relegated to small print at the bottom of the page where my cursor feared to go.

I'd feel national pride if it stopped raining and the sun came out.