Kevin Myers: What the English have, as they showed last Saturday, is guts. But it is often witless guts
Published 03/03/2010 | 05:00
ALWAYS willing to oblige my two readers; one of them asked me what the rugby match at Twickenham showed about the English. No doubt the request was tongue-in-cheek, but either way, let me oblige.
Because a great deal of that dangerously elusive quality "national character" was in evidence from the England performance on Saturday. The first was cultural: the English have virtually no songs denoting identity. The very fact that the only tune that English rugby fans seem able to sing in a group is a negro spiritual (as we are, for the moment anyway, still allowed to say), 'Swing low Sweet Chariot' suggests as much. The fact that the British national anthem is also the English team anthem tends to confirm it. Simply, the English get embarrassed by musical enthusiasm: the last night of the Proms is the exception, the annual pig-out by habitual anorexics.
Every Irish county has its own tune, and every town has its musical bard. These cultural fixtures are unknown in England. People simply do not sing of their home towns there; indeed, even the concept, "home town" is mawkish and rather American-sounding. The English do not even write songs about themselves. The three most "English" of wartime tunes -- 'Berkeley Square', 'A Foggy Day in London Town,' and 'Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover', were, essentially, written by American Jews (though the lyrics of 'Berkeley Square' were written by an Englishman of German-Jewish extraction). And to leap codes for a moment, the tune most often chanted by English soccer fans, 'The Great Escape', was also written by an American Jew.
All this suggests either indifference to or a certain emotional constipation about identity and place, which are things that the Irish, Scots, Welsh and, most of all, Americans, hold dear. The English exception is Liverpool, for obvious reasons. Shakespeare might have lauded Englishness, but few English people do so today. The result is a kind of nameless, stunted plant which expresses itself through a dysfunctional culture of entitlement whenever the English are doing moderately well. Absence of failure is seen as evidence of imminent triumph. Which no doubt accounts for the often nauseating smugness which is a characteristic of Twickenham.
What the English have, as they showed last Saturday, is guts. Though it is often witless, unimaginative guts, of the kind which caused British armour to drive obligingly into Rommel's tank traps in the western desert, and for RAF bomber command to bomb German open fields at huge cost to bomber crews from 1941-44. I am using British and English here interchangeably, simply because the British army and the RAF were English in culture and organisation. And Englishness was so evident in the cumbrous courage that the losing team showed on Saturday -- in such contrast to the flare and intelligence and versatility of the Irish play. There was probably but one English plan, but a full 20 renal options open to the Irish camp. Doesn't the count of 99 Irish successful tackles tell you something?
The "famous" English rugby world cup, which everyone else has completely forgotten, was based on stolidity and perseverance, and the Wilkinson boot. That is a one-time only, one-trick pony. And underlying all this is the English class system, which effectively discriminates against players from working-class backgrounds. You could probably pick a team from the English West Country whose redoubtably humble players would probably run rings around the English team on Saturday, but who are routinely ignored.
SO sport provides a wonderful insight into this elusive thing, "national character", though it becomes a less useful guide if the coach is foreign, and still less when the players are too. Jack Charlton's "Ireland" team was no use as a guide to national characteristics, because so many of the players were, like their manager, culturally English: (Tony Galvin didn't even know his surname was Irish until a certain journalist -- modesty forbids, et cet -- told him).
That's why I am glad the Germans don't play rugby. I love Germans. They have all the qualities: intelligence, courage, flair, imagination, technique -- though I note that all five words are French in origin. There's a sixth quality, stubbornness, which is a less constant feature of the French, but an invariable one from the English and Germans.
Stubbornness is not necessarily a virtuous quality. Stubborn stupidity, by trade unions and management, brought about the death of the English motor car industry, home of the Rover and Bentley, whereas stubborn brilliance has given us BMW, Audi, VW, and Mercedes.
Stubborn stupidity has strangled English rugby. Stubborn brilliance has given us French rugby, against whom Ireland has triumphed, away, just twice in the past 40 years.
Yet for all our smallness, we still expect some brilliance -- a Kyle, O'Reilly, Ward, Campbell, Geoghegan, O'Driscoll -- in even a poor Irish team, far more than do the English. All of those men had or have the individual flair of the warrior. Is it surprising that the most decorated rugby international of all nations between 1939-45 was Irish? Moreover, the grandfather of Ireland's hero, Tommy Bowe, won a Military Cross in the Normandy Landings: how many of the English team could boast of such ancestry?